Didier is always on his phone. He assured me that this phone is, in fact, his livelihood.
He does not use it for making phone calls but rather as a tool for accessing the Internet and social media. The networks on Facebook and WhatsApp keep him always on the move; and accessing the Internet allows him not only to learn about Chad, the world, and other political information, but also to discover ways to foster his activities through competitions, to find funds for his project on m-health, and so on.
How this works has gradually become apparent to me. The clearest example was just recently when I went to Abidjan to accompany Didier to the first award at the competition of the Francophonie 35>35, a competition for young innovative and successful French-speaking entrepreneurs aged between 18 and 35. The competition started in 2016 under the framework of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, the international organization that unites countries where French is one of the main languages.
I went to Abidjan especially to learn about the Francophonie and its working. But what I discovered was, in fact, what I would like to call the Android Youth. Let us start by acknowledging a fact that, like it or not, is a new tendency for opportunities among African youth: the appearance of competitions for innovative and business-like initiatives. This is in line with ‘development’ approaches that no longer talk about ‘projects’, but ‘businesses’, ‘innovations’, and ‘social entrepreneurship’. I observed some of these competitions closely, such as the start-up award of Total, and the start-up competitions of Reach4Change—from which the Dawa m-health project was born and which I assisted in N’Djaména—which encourage the youth to compete against each other to carve out a prosperous future.
What I find particularly interesting is that access to these competitions is through the Internet and social media—through Facebook in particular. The procedures around these prizes are entirely ‘Facebooked’. For example, the registration for the competition Francophonie 35>35 was accessible only through Facebook, which—according to records on the last day of the registration period—had logged an average of 900 views per week for the competition page. Indeed, the whole event was ‘computerized’. In Abidjan I expected to see a large organization of the Francophonie, but they were not much in evidence at all. They had lent their name and publication channels to the Ivorian entrepreneur Richard Seshi, who had this idea for a competition—and, it goes without saying, is also very ‘connected’ via social media sites on his smartphone. He established the Francophonie 35>35, and he organizes it all via the Internet. This serves as a clue that this event was intended for the innovative Android Youth. The fact that Microsoft was one of the main supporters of Seshi’s initiative—an opportunity for them to access the Android Youth—serves as evidence for this, in my opinion, as does the fact that Seshi does his best to provide his event with publicity on the Internet (e.g. by linking it to TEDx Abidjan, another event he initiated).
In January 2016, Didier was in the Netherlands. He had already shown me the long list he keeps of Internet links to competitions he wants to work on. Among these links was the one for the call for candidates for the Francophonie 35>35, which had its deadline soon. One of the requests was that he send in a 3-minute video. With such a tight deadline, the making of the video that he did with a friend was anything but smooth! They managed to send in the video at midnight of the last day … just in time. A few weeks later he received a message that he was among the 35 selected entrepreneurs, from a total of 200 candidates. Thence began the exchanges on the practical aspects, from the organization to the travel to Abidjan, all of which were discussed over the Internet. By participating with his project Dawa m-health, he won the Super Prix: Jeune Personnalité Francophone de l’Année.
Being there with Didier was for me a chance to meet many Android innovators like him. I was amazed by all their stories, which I have described more extensively elsewhere. The crème de la crème of the Francophone world were there together—drawn from countries as diverse as Burkina Faso, Senegal, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Mauritius, Togo, Vietnam, the United States, and Mali—their paths crossing in Abidjan because of a submission online!
After the awards ceremony, everybody went back to where they were busy with their different enterprises. A new WhatsApp group was created, waiting for the next messages from Richard, the approaches through Facebook, and certainly an email about the next steps to undertake for another prize, or the next interview with whomever. This is an Android life.
Realizing that Didier is part of the Android Youth sheds a different light not only on his choices in entrepreneurship, those that led to the now promising project on m-health, but also on the way he deals with his networks as an entrepreneur and an artist—and the way he is totally integrated in WhatsApp groups and conversations to deal with these aspects of his life. Being a mobile person—who lives between Cameroon and the Netherlands and yet is so active with art and social activities in his native Chad—the Internet is not just a way to search for information or send emails; it is indeed his life.
This also brings me back to a memory of his childhood, when he asked his uncle in France to bring him a game item instead of a pair of nice shoes such as most of his age-mates would have requested. And later his great wish was to become a computer-game developer. The education for a game developer was too expensive, however, and his parents could not pay for it. Instead of becoming a game developer, he has used the possibilities that arose from access to the mobile world and become a m-health entrepreneur.
So, where are the Android Youth? Why do they seem so invisible in the discourses we normally hear about youth in African countries? Why do we understand so little about them and their enormous possibilities?
The Android Youth is seen both as the future of and as a threat to ‘our’ world, which is founded on a belief in democracy, equality, and welfare for all. This ideal world and the norms and values behind it drive discussions about the pathways for youth and the policies that should accompany them. In the context of the fight against terrorism and radicalization, the youth, especially the massive numbers of young people in Africa (an estimated more than 60 per cent of the population) and in suburban spaces in Europe and the United States, are considered a potential threat to the world order. There are quite a number of young people who no longer believe in the legitimacy of the models that have shaped their states. The search for social, economic, and political identities has become central to their lives. The advancement of ICTs, including social media, has made this a far more complex matter: Facebook has become one of the major communication and search tools for youth all over the world.
For many of the youth we are referring to here, in countries such as Chad, Mali, and Senegal, it is not easy to access roads to prosperity. The norms, values, and opportunities of rural livelihoods do not match with the aspirations of these often urbanized youth. Also, in rural areas youth are increasingly growing accustomed to urban lifestyles, among other reasons because of their access to the Internet. Instead of traditional rural lifestyles, they are confronted with new ideas, new lifestyles, and hopes for different futures, condensed in the advertisements of mobile telephony and beer companies, in the discourses of politicians they see on TV, and in what can be accessed through social media. One such discourse is about youth migration towards Europe, which resonates with their hopelessness and their difficult search for identity. African and European media have made this into one of their major discourses, obscuring others.
In the speech delivered by Didier Lalaye after he received his prize, he put his finger on the dilemma many young people are facing. But his speech also revealed that these inventive youth are opinion makers and socio-political activists in their societies. He turned the question of youth’s success into a political agenda.
‘A small rant: if we are into digital innovation, it means that somewhere we should have the support of the Internet; but unfortunately in my country, Chad, the government has cut the Internet since March 2016. This is so disappointing! To all who are present here: those who might or do host the Chadian government as heroes internationally are wrong. It is, rather, a government that is trying to destroy the dreams of the youth. I want you to reflect on that!
I dedicate this thing [the trophy] to all young people in Chad who do not even have the chance to post a video on YouTube. I am here because I live in Holland [to do a PhD]. If I had been living in Chad, I would never have had the access to the Internet that I should have!’
Photo: Mirjam de Bruijn
Read the post ‘Android Youth : The prix de la Francophonie 35>35‘ on Mirjam de Bruijn’s blog Counter Voices