We (Can All Be) One: African Philosophy and Blockchain

The name ‘Ubuntu’ may be most familiar from the open-source operating system, but the term was not invented by the programmers on the Canonical team. Rather they selected an appropriate concept from a Bantu language group centered on Southern Africa, the Nguni Bantu. The term was well chosen, for the meaning conveys a sense of collective responsibility that is also implicit in the world of blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

The Ubuntu philosophy is sometimes summarized as a worldview based on mutual personhood. “You are only a person through other people” is one adage that people seeking to explain Ubuntu often fall back on. The Ubuntu attitude is one that centers meaning on community and shared responsibility. In a world economy that fosters connectivity while also excluding the majority of people from wealth and power, blockchain and the cryptoeconomy have taken root as potential sources of disruption.  After many years of monopoly building and the establishment of strict vertical hierarchies, the disruption of crypto seems set to bring a refreshed sense of Ubuntu mutuality.

The decentralized structure of cryptocurrencies and blockchains is something that holds significant promise for the developing economies on the African continent. The match between the philosophy underpinning these new technologies and African tradition is also something that multiple commentators have picked up on. As blockchain spreads rapidly through Africa, it is not simply the utility that appeals to people, but also the ideas of making a more egalitarian, accessible economy using digital transfers of value.

In the future, African economies may benefit from being perceived as sources of “good problems” rather than insoluble ones, and forward-thinking technological adoption and development is a significant part of such a re-branding. Alleviating poverty is one goal, but there is no reason that African creativity cannot go to work on the cutting edge of technological development as well.

We now see all manner of inventive blockchain use-cases in Africa, with a number of clean energy and sustainability ventures standing out. In the well known digital hub of Kenya, the government has appointed a special task force to examine the potential benefits of the technology, and Sierra Leone has likewise sought to kick-start blockchain development with public/private cooperation.

While the hype generated by ICOs and unregulated investment has threatened to take over the whole narrative around blockchain, it is likely that real-world problems and people motivated to find solutions to them will ride to the rescue. If you are looking for a hopeful new strand in the cryptocurrency story, the resourcefulness of Africa and Africans may well give you reasons to be cheerful – and a certain kind of optimism and cheerfulness is also part of the attitude described by the word Ubuntu.

Alleviating poverty is one goal, but there is no reason that African creativity cannot go to work on the cutting edge of technological development as well.

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