The weird worlds of African sci-fi - African Business Magazine
The weird worlds of African sci-fi

The weird worlds of African sci-fi

African sci-fi features all manner of weird and outlandish things, from crime-fighting robots to technological dystopias. But could they be closer to predicting the future than they realise?

Since the birth of the science fiction genre in the early 19th century, Africans have been conspicuously absent from sci-fi films, novels and comics. However, in recent years, African science fiction has been quietly flourishing, and a small but growing coterie believes this sub-genre not only reflects recent achievements in African technology but could predict or shape future inventions.

“There has always been a symbiotic relationship between science fiction and technological innovation,” says Jonathan Dotse, a prominent Ghana-based blogger on African science fiction, who is working on his first sci-fi novel. 

Dotse points out that sci-fi in the West developed in response to the rapid rate of technological progress and believes technological development in Africa could provoke a similar surge.

“Science fiction can raise awareness in Africa of the huge potential of indigenous innovation to improve living standards,” he says. “Our nations will need to significantly increase their investment into the institutions and technological infrastructure required to create and sustain this innovation. Such costly and long-term initiatives won’t easily gain public support without a public discourse that takes the long view of their own societal development. This is exactly sort of discourse that science fiction provokes, and can help to shape within African societies.”

Dotse emphasises that science fiction is highly relevant to Africa, despite the prevailing belief that it is a Western genre. “Nnedi Okorafor and Lauren Beukes, two of the most prominent African science fiction writers, build their stories around ideas which express the intricacies and artefacts of their respective cultural backgrounds and merge them seamlessly with speculative concepts,” he says.

Okorafor, a Nigerian sci-fi writer, agrees that she is driven by a desire to explore possible African futures on Africa’s own terms.

“I found a lot of Western science fiction to be quite insular and self-absorbed,” she says. “I started writing it because whenever I’d travel to Nigeria, I’d see Nigerians interacting and using technology in a way that was a little different than what I’d see in the West. I wasn’t seeing anyone write about the continent of Africa as the modern place it is. I wasn’t seeing anyone dreaming about its future.”

One eye on the future

The emergence of African sci-fi inevitably raises questions about whether it will predict or shape future innovations. It is now received wisdom that Western science fiction anticipated or even sparked future inventions. Famous examples are the prediction of debit cards in Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward, antidepressants in Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World, and the first internet search engine in the 1978 BBC radio comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Although African science fiction is still embryonic, there is a growing pool of works that are arguably already pertinent to Africa and possible future

A good starting point is the compilation AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, published in 2012. All of the stories reflect African realities in one way or another. Sarah Lotz’s short story ‘Home Affairs’, for example, is an incisive exploration of what might happen if civil servants in one of Africa’s sprawling government bureaucracies were replaced by robots that could erase a citizen’s entire identity records with a single computer error.

Some stories go even further. A story by Ashley Jacobs, for instance, describes one man’s determined search across South Africa for medicine that will cure a sick friend. In this South Africa of the future, basic infrastructure – such as medication – is severely lacking but society is awash with useless technology.

This depiction may turn out to be not too dissimilar to future realities. After all, nearly two thirds of households in Africa have at least one mobile phone. But around three quarters live in poverty.

‘Spider The Artist’ by Okorafor meanwhile features robotic spiders tasked with guarding oil pipelines in the Niger Delta. This too may turn out to be a pertinent prediction. A multimillion-dollar project currently being carried out by the world’s largest security firm, G4S, could lead to the introduction of robots along Nigeria’s oil pipelines within the next decade or so.

A team, which involves G4S and several leading universities, is already trialling security robots as part of a $11m EU-financed project. Although these robots could be useful in a number of contexts, analysts have flagged the protection of Nigeria’s oil pipelines, which are systematically targeted by militants, as a possibility.

Tomorrow’s world

Africa’s sci-fi films may also foretell future innovations. Pumzi, a 23-minute science fiction film by Wanuri Kahiu, was released in 2009. It is set in a post-apocalyptic Kenya, where there is a shortage of water. Apart from being a troubling reflection of rising fears about East Africa’s water supplies, Pumzi could be touching on tech innovations that we will see in Africa one day – such as a technology to purify urine.

Some innovators in Africa are already playing with this idea. In 2012, four female Nigerian entrepreneurs hit the headlines after creating an invention that not only purifies urine but uses the waste to generate electricity. The technology involves channelling urine into an electrolytic cell that transforms the waste into hydrogen, water and nitrogen. The hydrogen can then be purified. With the generator the innovators built, one litre of urine can provide six hours of electricity.

Okorafor is nonetheless insistent that African science fiction, perhaps like all fictional literature, arises from a natural process rather than speculation about the future. “If I thought this hard about my stories’ specifics, there would be nothing organic about them. To me, my stories are more like a living thing than a machine,” she says.

Nonetheless, Dotse describes such speculation as a “natural reaction”, which is “inspiring writers across the continent to begin exploring the nature of these changes and extrapolating the long-term impact they may have on our societies.

“Since I first started paying closer attention to the details and adding up the implications for the years to come, I’ve begun to see the future of Africa, and the future of human civilisation, in ways that I have never seen before.”   


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Written by Sherelle Jacobs

Sherelle Jacobs is a British freelance journalist covering sub-Saharan African business and development news. In 2013, she won 'Best Newcomer' at the Diageo Africa Business Reporting Awards. She has written for the Economist, BBC, Financial Times, Guardian, Independent, African Business and African Banker. She speak French, Arabic, Russian and German.

  • Cincinnatus

    Thank you, Sherelle. Too few Africans find science fiction a peep into the fiery frontier. It is an absolute lack of imagination needed to birth creativity in problem solving. People actually think most superhero movies are science fiction not childish fantasy. It’s sad. I have only met 4 people in my country that actually like science fiction at all. 4 in over 30 years. Even Africa’s multichoice doesn’t bother offering science fiction channels in its entertainment bundle anymore. Innovation is needed to solve Africa’s intricate and subtle problems and science fiction is where you receive complex and futuristic ideas to work with.

    • Ronald T. Jones

      Most superhero movies are science fiction. Superman is an alien from another planet, which is a science fiction concept. The X Men are products of a leap in human evolution. Iron Man’s armor suit is a high tech engineering marvel that anticipates real world developments in exoskeleton technology. Thus superhero movies are far from childish fantasies.

      • Cincinnatus

        You’re right to a degree, Mr Jones. A being from another world is fiction that is attached to astronomy (science). Although a lot of imagination is required to even assume a physical being can oppose and conquer natural and celestial forces successfully with nothing but his biological form because he’s from another world. That is too far into fiction thus fantasy.
        Flight for example require a lot of energy being allocated strategically against gravity to achieve it, especially when its mass is greater than the amount of required energy the physical being can generate and channel over a period of time. Alien or not, the functions and underlining equations are the same on this planet. His power generation is a function of his bio resources (accepting it may constitute alien variables), and its ingenious applications against its relationship with celestial forces (having far more mass and density), allowing physical laws on this planet as constants, is going to nullify the “Super” in his name when they collide. As for evolution and exo-suits, I can understand to a certain degree. Evo can be sped up using chemistry, virology and bio splicing.

        What is considered Science fiction is the future version of our current state of science and technology all other things being equal in the real sense. What could be possible with what we know in science. I do know I’m being short sighted but do not like to assume too much, also known as fantasizing. Maybe childish is a poor choice of word that shouldn’t have been used but fantasy fits most superhero works.

        I’ve always seen superheroes and their relationship with their mirrors “villains” as an attempt to teach young minds choices and other advanced ideas in humanity for the purposes of social engineering. I may be wrong though.

      • umbrarchist

        Comic book movies may contain some science fiction tropes but they are hardly scientific. Try “The Two Faces of Tomorrow” by James P. Hogan for engineering realism.

        The Cosmic Computer, by Henry Beam Piper

  • umbrarchist
    • Sean

      I think the point is the rise of African science fiction (and literature in general) written by *Africans*.

      Consider just how much of the well-known literature out there–both scifi, and otherwise–has been written by Europeans, Russians, North Americans, Australians, or New Zealanders–and typically white folks as well.

      It’s quite disproportionate to actual populations, and potential literary talent and perspectives, around the world.

      • umbrarchist

        I understood, but it is European technology that made the cultural dominance possible and much of the other perspective will be reaction to that dominance. But reactions without knowing technology will be pretty worthless. I do wonder what effect that 1961 book might have had if it had been very widely read.

        • Adele Quested

          It’s not like you can’t study engineering anywhere in Africa.

          • umbrarchist

            That is part of my point. What does location matter with the Internet? At what point does techno-culture become so dominant that other aspects of culture hardly matter? They become nothing but emotional attachments. Like those idiotic neck ties and high-heel shoes. LOL

          • Adele Quested

            Whatever that point is, we certainly haven’t reached it yet. Culture is many-splendored thing. As in any complex system, I’m not sure you could ever isolate individual aspects to the point that you could safely ignore all others. And even if it were possible, I would certainly find it very boring. The same technologies might have more or less subtly different impact on different societies and exploring that seems to me utterly fascinating.

          • umbrarchist

            We have the astounding problems of of the CO2 in the atmosphere being higher than it has been in more than a million years and this causing the ph of the oceans to change. Unfortunately I expect the effects of these to be more important than any cultures.

            Double-entry accounting can be quite boring but it is 700 years old. But the idiot Europeans can’t think of making it mandatory in their schools. So the aspect of culture of hiding important information may be what is causing things to be so screwed up world wide.

            So I try to use the Internet to change that. Some people choose to pass it on:


          • Adele Quested

            Do you really think we can do something about that CO2 level without changing something about our culture? Do you think we can change cultures without thinking deeply about the ways in which they came to their current state and the ways in which they might be changed? That’s the thing I was referring to earlier – you can’t really look at these things in isolation. Developing a technology is one thing, promoting its widespread use another. There’s rarely a merely technological solution to a capitalist society making the wrong sort of thing the most-cost-efficient. Won’t see much efforts here as long as damages to the environment are the sort of costs that can be so easily externalized.

            On a fairly unrelated note, I’m deeply touched by your impassioned plea for mandatory double-entry accounting, because that’s one of the subjects I’m teaching. So I guess I’m already doing my part?

          • umbrarchist

            Planned Obsolescence is what needs to be changed about the culture. This is where technology meets economics. And personal accounting that people do not do is where it shows up. There were 200,000,000 cars in the US in 1995. There were only 8,000 in 1900. Machines wear out and therefore depreciate but do Capitalist Economists tell us how much the consumer side depreciation amounts to every year. What if we made cars last twice as long? Would that affect CO2 output or not?

            Sci-fi is partly speculation about how society uses technology. But some people in society lie to other people in society. If everyone understood accounting maybe some lies would be too obvious.

          • Adele Quested

            Yeah, some accounting lessons alone won’t do the trick, and again, I say this as someone who gives them. You’d have to change the entire system of incentives on a global scale. Find some alternative to capitalism while you’re at it. Not saying it couldn’t be done. In fact I truly hope so, because I kinda agree that we’re going to be fucked otherwise. But whatever the solution is, it’s far from obvious and involves a lot more than technology and accounting.

          • umbrarchist

            So what do you explain about the “depreciation” of technology. The Laws of Physics cannot tell capital goods from consumer goods. My point is the European Economic theory ignores the depreciation of durable consumer goods purchased by consumers. So we are running the world on defective algebra.

            There are 800,000,000 cars in the world. Where do economists compute and report all of that depreciation?

          • Adele Quested

            I’m not sure I understand what you’re talking about. Of course you account for depreciation. There are laws about it and everything, at least in the country where I live. People who only pay payroll tax on wages rather than income tax on profits out of indepedent enterprise probably won’t always calculate the exact rate of depreciation on their investments, but most people are going to be sufficiently aware that the car you buy now can’t be resold at the same price five years later.

            What you talked about earlier – planned obsolescence – is not so much a problem of accounting, but of unfortunate incentives in a free-market economy where people are tempted to prioritize short-term profitability instead of longterm sustainability. Manufacturers could make certain goods last longer, but there’s no competitive advantage in it for them, so they don’t. People often replace things long before they are damaged beyond repair, mostly because it’s fun to have new stuff when you can afford it (and you might need to do it to signal your status; that’s not mere vanity necessarily. The really rich of course can afford to be understated, because no one would question their status, but everyone who still has to hustle better make an effort, for pragmatic reasons. No one’s going to give business to a bum. Don’t hate the player, hate the game).

            See, the problem is not that people don’t know that goods don’t last forever, but might be produced in a manner that might make them last longer – the problem is that not enough people care enough about this to make this profitable for the manufacturers. It’s not like “planned obsolescence” is some arcane knowledge only accessible to the elite few or something. I’ve learned about that in school. It’s explained in one of my textbooks. I would totally buy the car the lasts longer and keep it as long as it works, but apparently there are not enough consumers like me to make that a viable business plan. That might be changing – “sustainability” is such a buzzword, people are really, really trying to make it a thing – but it’s a bit of hipster trend, not quite at the level of mass market penetration. The old car might still work as well as ever, but the new one is going to be faster or more comfortable, or just prettier and make the neighbours jealous and to many people that’s just worth the money. Why would they care about planned obsolecence? (What’s more, the new car might even be more environmentally friendly, use less gas due to technological advances, etc. Maybe it’s even cheaper in the long run. It’s not always a straightforward calculation with these things.)

          • umbrarchist

            There are laws about the Depreciation of Capital goods. The Laws of Physics cannot tell the difference between Capital goods and Consumer goods. If human laws do not allow depreciation to be filed on consumer goods that does not stop them from depreciating.

            So if economists add the purchase of durable consumer goods to GDP but then do not subtract the depreciation of those goods to compute NET Domestic Product then we are running the planet on defective algebra.


            I do not understand what is difficult about this. So if planned obsolescence is going on then economists are covering it up by ignoring all of that consumer depreciation regardless of whether or not it can be filed with the IRS.

          • Adele Quested

            Yes, but that’s an argument about the use of the GDP for the rationalization of policies and it ties into my argument about wrong incentives in a capitalist society. I absolutely agree that judging policies solely by their impact on GDP leads to harmful choices and sets wrong incentives on a macro-economical level. That said, my point about companies still having a lots of incentives to practice planned obsolence on the micro-economic level still stands, and changing the way you calculate the GDP won’t change that. Companies don’t care about the GDP. They care about their own bottom lines. What are you going to do about it? Pass a law that will have them pay fines for every product that won’t last as long as you think it should? Tax them more heavily for the size of their ecological footprint? You know what, I’m actually into that, but surely you see how that’s very much a political issue that goes way beyond mere matters of accounting.

          • umbrarchist

            I am not suggesting changing the way GDP is calculated. I am saying that the equation for NDP is wrong. The purchase of durable consumer goods is added to GDP. But only the depreciation of capital goods is subtracted.

            My point about accounting is for consumers to be aware of that depreciation even if they cannot file it with the IRS. Therefore they will understand that economists are LIARS. But the Laws of Physics do not care about Capitalism or Communism or Socialism. Proper physics and economics should mean getting the math to match reality correctly.

          • Adele Quested

            And my point is that consumers and politicians are aware of this, but they don’t care (so neither changing the way you calculate the GDP or the NDP would change a damn thing). Again, I’m teaching this subject. When I ask students whether they think they can resell their car at the same price they bought it after five years, they all know that they can’t.

            Getting the math right is important because metrics are used to rationalize decisions. But neither GDP nor NDP are metrics that affect business strategies or consumer behavior with regard to things like planned obsolecence. => Changing these metrics won’t solve this particular problem.

          • umbrarchist

            Yes, consumer behavior based on ignorance will probably not change. A Swedish Socialist told me that he objected to mandatory accounting on the grounds that the math would make Capitalism seem logical to the students. A Libertarian objected on the grounds that nothing should be mandatory. An accountant told me that he didn’t have a problem with it as long as it was not done for another 6 years, after he retired. I find the different reasonings very curious.

          • Adele Quested

            Again: the problem is not ignorance, but short term-thinking. People _know_ that cars lose value with use, regardless of whether you calculate the rate of depreciation or not. But that’s a problem for future_them, not current_them. Information alone doesn’t change that.

            For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t object to mandatory accounting at all; I just don’t think it would accomplish quite as much as you seem to hope.

  • umbrarchist

    Blackman’s Burden and Border, Breed Nor Birth by Mack Reynolds

    So does the globally networked technology now provide the means to culturally homogenize the planet? We need science fiction with real science. Stuff as intellectually shallow as Star Wars is merely entertaining.

  • Earl Tower

    I think many of us who try and write science fiction can project most other cultural sets into some type of future, but Africa is a big unknown. There are so many cultures and the continent has such a long way to go to solve many problems it is hard to even understand all the current issues, much less project future solutions. But it would be a fantastic thing to see Africa catch up and become the dynamic presence it could be in the future of Humanity.

  • Kama

    Came here looking for African sf writers, got an USA writer of African descent or some Africaneers. Totally not what I have been looking for. I know Pumzi already.

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