In 1966, His Highness the Aga Khan spoke brilliantly to African nations on seeking out areas of opportunity from new developments in computers and space

Compiled and prepared by ABDULMALIK MERCHANT
Publisher-Editor, Simerg, Barakah and Simergphotos

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. He said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

President Kennedy meets wth Aga Khan at Oval office in March 1961President John F. Kennedy meets with His Highness the Aga Khan, at the Oval Office, White House, on March 14, 1961. Two months later, the President spoke in Congress about his vision for America to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. His dream was realized on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Apollo 11’s lunar module Eagle on the moon. Photo: Robert L. Knudsen, (Robert LeRoy), 1929-1989.

In the following year, on September 12, 1962, the President delivered a speech to a large crowd in Houston, Texas, to persuade Americans to support the national Apollo program to land a man on the moon before 1970. The President’s goal was realized on July 20, 1969, with the successful Apollo 11 mission that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

The Apollo 11 landing on the moon
The Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle landed men on the moon on July 20, 1969. Photo: NASA.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, the first lunar landing of man on the moon, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto recently launched a major exhibition “The Moon: A Voyage Through Time” which explores mankind’s enduring fascination with this enchanting orb in the sky. The exhibition looks at the role the moon has played in Muslim culture and beyond. The exhibition is on until August 18, 2019.

Moon sculpture rendition Aga Khan Museum 2019 photo 1
Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first human steps on the moon at the Aga Khan Museum by discovering the wonder, knowledge, and beauty the moon has inspired through the ages. The exhibition “The Moon: A Voyage Through Time” runs at the Aga Khan Museum until August 18, 2019. Photo: Malik Merchant / Barakah.

The Museum’s builder, His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of Shia Ismaili Muslims, referred to the space age and other technological advances, such as in the field of communications, at the very beginning of his Imamat and in subsequent years when speaking to his community. In a thought-provoking address – the first in a series of lectures sponsored by the East African Institute of Social and Cultural Affairs – he asked new African nations to seek advancement by utilizing the latest trends and discoveries in science and technology. His address was given in Nairobi on November 24, 1966 at the Kenya National Theatre. The following are excerpts from his speech.  

Using Computers, Advanced Scientific Techniques and Space Exploration to Advance Development in Africa

His Highness the Aga Khan. Photo: © James MacDonald, Ottawa.

(Excerpts from speech, Nairobi, November 24, 1966)


A most dramatic example of the way in which modern science can accelerate the pace of development in Africa is the electronic computer. There are, I believe, already a dozen computers in use or on order for East Africa today. In a remarkable way they are helping to overcome the critical shortage of local statisticians and accountants who are such an indispensable part of modern administration and scientific management.

It may not be very popular thought, but computers can and are being used, for example, to speed up tax collection and establish Pay As You Earn schemes. Without a prompt and efficient system of collecting revenues, no country can hope to advance. Computers are also being used for a vast range of calculations in agricultural research, in industry and even – though one cannot help finding this concept rather alarming – in processing examination results. What we really need, of course, is a personalised, pocket-computer to answer examination papers, not just to mark them!

March of Science

In East Africa, where agriculture is likely to remain the biggest single industry and revenue earner, the march of science is already beginning to transform the prospects and potential of this region. For instance, an entirely new process for preserving meat by gamma radiation will be established by an American firm, which will set up a large processing plant in the lake region of Tanzania next year. This factory will handle 12 million pounds of meat annually without any of the expensive refrigeration plant formerly needed. It will also keep this meat perfectly fresh for periods of more than six months.

It needs little imagination to realise what a transformation this process could mean to the livestock industry in East Africa. Lower costs will lead to new internal markets, new possibilities for export outlets and eventually a higher living standard for both farmers and urban consumers. This, remember, will be the first plant of its kind in the world, and Africa has been chosen as the site.

Closer to home, here in Kenya, there are several other developments illustrating the same trend. An important British investment in your coastal fishing industry will enable a hitherto unexploited source of food to be available inland cheaply and economically. Experiments for turning the large wastage element of sisal into paper and packaging products are at an advanced stage. A recent discovery has shown that the husk of the humble rice grain can be converted into an extremely cheap and useful building material with excellent properties of heat insulation and sound proofing.

The whole question of local conversion of primary crops into finished products for world export markets is receiving the urgent attention of your Government, farmers and foreign investors. The pineapple industry is the first practical example of this in Kenya, and, as problems of marketing, storage and quality control are overcome, I understand this will be extended to other fruit and vegetable crops. It is in this way that Africa will cease to be so dependent on world price movements for primary commodities and exert an increasing control over its own economic destiny. The main point I wish to make, however, is that it can only do this if it is prepared to welcome and to encourage the most up-to-date technical methods.

If, for example, farming is to continue as the mainstay of your economy, then it is essential that your farming should utilise the very latest scientific techniques of production, processing and marketing. The second-hand or second best will not do. It is essential for you to make the maximum possible use of the quite revolutionary period of technical advances in which we are living today. If you can achieve this, I believe that you will attain a degree of progress in the next years which the last generation would have thought impossible to achieve in a century or more.

Space Age

The same considerations will also apply to the growth of your smaller industrial and commercial activities. The Space Age in which we live is producing the most astonishing development in the use of power and electronics.

I have already referred to the computer. The enormous sums of money which are spent by the Americans, the Russians and other great powers may seem almost indecently wasteful to the earth-bound Asian or African peasant struggling merely to keep himself and his family alive, admit to sharing the uneasiness of many people who are worried by the large sums of money spent by the nuclear powers in the space race.

And yet the benefits of those flights in outer space are already filtering through to us, even here in Africa. I think you have a moral right to insist that such benefits are increasingly passed on to the developing world.

You may have read only the other day that the United States is planning a second communication satellite which will operate somewhere above the Indian Ocean, serving both the Indian sub-continent and this region of Africa. It is possible, I understand, that one of the ground stations serving this satellite will actually be situated somewhere in East Africa.

This, of course, is a direct development of the space programmes and there is no reason why it should not directly benefit the peoples of this area within the next few years. The communication satellite can provide cheap and rapid telephone communications all over the world. It can be used for extremely accurate long-range weather forecasting of incalculable value to your farming community. It also has a tremendous potential for educational television.

Arthur Clarke

A British science writer, Mr, Arthur Clarke, recently forecast that these satellites would have a capacity to flash back and forth across the face of the earth full colour television transmission, a capacity to visit all museums, read any book in any library, attend all First Nights, and call up almost instantly the knowledge of the ages stored in the memory circuits of giant computers. A few years ago this would have appeared the language of the most extravagant science fiction. Today, it is almost a reality not merely in New York, but perhaps also in Nairobi.

It is towards this new and revolutionary concept of the future that you must direct the minds of your school and university students. The important point to remember is that all this could, and almost certainly will happen here. Development need not be concentrated solely in the older and wealthier nations.


For instance, most of you have heard Sony radios. Some of you may own sets made in Japan by Sony, but the Sony Corporation was once a purely American company. It set up business in war devastated Japan 20 years ago and, with the aid of the remarkable mechanical ingenuity of the Japanese, developed the modern transistor which has had such an enormous influence on the radio and electronics industries all over the world. Sony of Japan have, in fact, overtaken and outgrown Sony of America.

There is no reason why similar development should not take place in Africa. The meat processing plant in Tanzania will not, I am sure, be an isolated example.

Challenges to implementing programs in Africa

By this time some of you may be wondering if my enthusiasm is not running away with me. Am I seriously suggesting that all these marvels of the Space Age, all these harbingers of prosperity can be installed and working for us here in East Africa within our lifetime? Who will pay for them? Where will you find the men to operate them? How can you compete with the richer countries who have so much larger reserves of highly trained technicians? And if those machines and methods are so modern and labour-saving, what should you do about your unemployment problem?

The Aga Khan’s Answers

I will try to suggest some answers to these questions although many of them have already been recognised and are being tackled by your Government and its planning departments.

First, there is the question of investment capital. Some of this can be generated locally, but for many years to come most of your investment funds will have to be attracted from overseas in what is an increasingly competitive market. In other words, you have to create conditions at least as favourable as exist in other countries which are equally hungry for the limited supply of savings from older and richer nations.

The cautious and conservative bankers and investment experts of the Western world will often refer to the ‘high risk’ of investments in Africa. In a limited sense you cannot blame them for this. But the risks they are talking about are essentially political. They are worried about the dangers of racial or tribal conflict leading to administrative collapse, about the extreme political policies resulting in expropriation of foreign enterprise, about loss of earnings because of prohibitive taxation or refusal to allow repatriation of profits and so forth.

These factors cannot be ignored and they inevitably loom large in the minds of foreigners at a time when so many African Governments are faced with entirely new problems of internal and external security and balancing political alignments in a divided world. But the risks or the actuality of political instability are certainly not confined to Africa, and in any case they are likely to be a passing phase in the still almost unwritten pages of free Africa’s history. More quickly than you expect, the stony hearts of the most formidable financiers will begin to soften. As one of them remarked in Nairobi the other day, there is plenty of capital waiting for investment in Eastern Africa once the political problems of the common market have been solved.

Already such institutions as World Bank and a number of the United Nations Special Agencies are increasing the flow of development aid-aid which has the considerable advantage of being non-aligned and free of political strings. Another source of investment, and I believe it will be increasingly useful, is from very large financial reserves which all the big international companies and universities set aside for research purposes. These have a special advantage in that no immediate return by way of interest or dividends is expected. At the same time, relatively few developing countries have sought to tap the research capital market of the developed countries of the world.

The second question which worries many people about development in Africa is the growth of unemployment. I can readily understand what a delicate problem this is for all nations where the pressure of population is increasing. But at least Africa is in a far more favourable position than most of Asia in this respect and is likely to remain so for many generations to come.

Luddites and the negative approach to innovation

In the early years of the nineteenth century, at the birth of the first Industrial Revolution in England, you may remember a group of men known as the Luddites who smashed their new machinery because they were afraid it would put them out of work. This negative approach to technical innovations, however understandable in the particular circumstances of the moment, should never be permitted to dominate your long-term planning because new machines and new operating methods, as I have tried to show, are going to be of enormous importance to your further progress.

What would be the point in working hundreds of hours to obtain a new industry in Kenya, and then find that after a few years it is obsolete in the production methods, that the goods it produces cannot compete with similar goods produced in a more modern factory, and that when your industry does produce the goods, its costs are much higher than those of competitors overseas? It would simply mean that once again the consumer would have to pay for the obsolete factory originally installed.

Manpower requirements and technical training

We are left therefore, at the point where we began; the critical shortage of technical manpower, the manpower which will bring to Africa the benefits of today’s technical revolution. This shortage is not even confined to Africa, It is already worldwide and affects even the most sophisticated economies. I suspect that this may prove to be a far more difficult challenge to developing Africa than the lack of capital or the risks of political upheaval.

By arranging for a survey of your manpower requirements now and over the next five years, Kenya has at least taken a measure of this problem. Your University College here in Nairobi was also perhaps fortunate to have its origins-and still its principal strength-in its Faculties of Engineering and Commerce. I am informed that the Engineering Faculty has an annual intake of 120 students each year. The only observation I would venture to make in this connection is that this number is likely to be only a drop in the ocean of your total requirements. It is of considerable importance, therefore, that those who are privileged to study these courses should posses the highest possible qualifications and that the examinations standards should be kept at a very high level.

It is at a more modest level of technical training that the largest and most immediate contribution can be made. Such Institutions as the Industrial Training Center at Nakuru (founded with Japanese assistance), the former Muslim Institute at Mombasa founded by my grandfather (which has now opened its doors to students of all religions), the Polytechnic in Nairobi and the Railway Training School, are all playing a vital part in building up the nation’s reserves of skilled manpower to the technical branches.

Private firms are also contributing to the national effort, although only the largest and wealthiest individual companies can afford the considerable outlay involved. I was very impressed, however, to read the other day of the initiative taken by a group of companies in the electrical and radio business who have jointly formed an organisation in Kenya called the Electronics-group whose object is to encourage young Africans to take up electronics as a career and which organises lectures and study groups to this end.

The value of such voluntary efforts as this cannot be exaggerated and surely deserves not merely official encouragement and support, but emulation by other groupings in specialised industrial fields. In other words, the importance of tapping every available source of technical training is of paramount importance. It is one of the most valuable national investments which the people of this country can make, and any developing nation which is prepared to give the highest priority to this field of education will certainly reap very large benefits in the years to come.

As you know, my Ismaili Community has set up numerous nursery, primary and secondary schools all over East Africa. We certainly, would welcome any initiative by the East African Governments to modernise still further the syllabuses for these schools so that we can contribute to the flow of technological experts which are so desperately needed.

Let me conclude by saying that it is my sincere belief that, in certain given circumstances, underdevelopment is an asset rather than a liability. The underdevelopment of a nation, on the eve of a world technological revolution, can be exploited so long as that nation recognises the existence of the technological revolution. It must then be prepared to gear its educational institutions to produce enough trained men and women to take advantage of every revolutionary technique currently available or in the process of development.

For those who doubt the truth of this statement, I would beg them to read the lessons of recent history. The astonishing progress of Japan and Germany after their industries were almost completely destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.

True, both these nations could still call upon a skilled elite of highly trained technical manpower. For the time being in Africa you may have to import such an elite from overseas and also send your own people abroad to learn from others’ experience. But you do have the same tremendous advantage that Germany and Japan enjoyed 20 years ago. You are starting afresh. Like them, you can succeed. And I wish you every success.

Date posted: April 6, 2019.

Before departing this website, please click Barakah’s Table of Contents for links to more than 150 pieces dedicated to Mawlana Hazar Imam and his family.


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