It might sound like science fiction, but a Nigerian-born tech entrepreneur thinks he has found a way for Africans to escape problems like inequality and bad governance — a virtual nation born online.
His is among a number of African-led virtual projects that aim to help the world’s poorest continent capitalise on digital growth and tackle real-world problems, though some tech experts said such online spaces risk replicating offline inequalities.
“There’s so many things that limit us as Africans from real-world opportunities,” said Emole, co-founder of the Afropolitan network state project.
“(The Internet) is the only place in the world which serves as an equaliser.”
The development of the metaverse — a shared online environment where people can meet, buy virtual goods, and attend events — has sparked concern over digital rights, privacy and online inequality. “What happens to a grandma in rural South Africa with no Internet connection?” asked Thami Nkosi, an activist and researcher at South African non-profit Right2Know, which works to improve access to public information.
“We don’t have broadband, Internet, electricity, so who will benefit from this?”
But some researchers and activists think that as mobile phones and Internet connection become more widespread across the continent it will open up opportunities, and have stressed the need for products that are geared towards African needs.
The emerging virtual economy already includes some 2.5bn people and generates billions of dollars each year, according to a report by market research company L’Atelier.
“Most of the technology platforms we use in Africa were created in northern America, Europe, the Middle East or China,” said Johan Steyn, chair of the Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA).
“We need an African lens on the use of smart technology in order to accommodate the people of this continent,” said Steyn.
South African tech startup founder Mic Mann said bringing the metaverse to Africa is part of “future-proofing” the continent to ensure it keeps up with the rapidly expanding digital space.
“It’s going to completely change everything: the way we work, live, play,” said Mann, the co-founder of Ubuntuland, which calls itself the continent’s first metaverse marketplace.
The Afropolitan project is aimed at the more than 140mn strong African diaspora — and ultimately aims to expand to a physical territory.
Emole, who was born in Nigeria and raised in the United States, said it can offer solutions to poor governance in many of the continent’s countries, which he cited as a key factor behind emigration.
Afropolitan said it raised $2.1mn from a funding round in June to help develop the digital state, and 10,000 people have subscribed for more information and updates.
Its founders plan to launch initially by selling NFTs which will act as a “digital passport” to Afropolitan events and physical spaces, before developing an app allowing members to transfer money and buy goods and services.
Emole, who is based in Silicon Valley, said the project will span the internet and metaverse, gradually expanding to become a “full-blown digital country with its own native currency and shared purpose”.
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