Gearing up for new age of technological innovation in Africa

We’ve all heard that mobile is the future in Africa and that growth on the continent continues to outstrip the rest of the world, rising 18% per year over the past five years in sub-Saharan countries. When mobile technology arrived in Africa 20 years ago some predictions pegged market penetration at 2 million. Today, 353 million Africans are dialled in, with GSMA predicting that the figure will be 346 million by 2017.

The estimate is that around 65% of households in sub-Saharan African have at least one mobile phone. Such numbers are what makes it possible for US-based non-profit organisation, the Grameen Foundation to use its Mobile Technology for Community Health (MOTECH) platform to monitor trials of a new Ebola vaccination and help turn the tide on the virus which has killed nearly 9 000 people in East Africa.

There is no shortage of such tales of the impact of mobile technology in Africa. And yet, despite its pervasiveness, too many are still waiting for the life-changing effects of technology to reach them; the continent still boasts some of the worst poverty and inequality in the world.

This situation demands a new response from us and now is the time to act. On the one hand a burgeoning middle class and healthy economic growth has investors lining up on our shores, on the other, cheaper broadband and the convergence of technology is leading to the shaping of new industries and value-adding services, with the potential to truly transform lives and experiences.

We need to remember, though, the importance of investing in local knowledge and institutions. Africa is littered with misguided attempts to solve its grand challenges from the outside in. As authors Duflo and Banerjee point out in their book Poor Economics, “Even the most well-intentioned ideas can get bogged down by ignorance of ground-level realities and inertia at the level of the implementer.”

In developing the right technology products and services for the future, local knowledge will be key. Companies with their roots in Africa should have an advantage in the coming technological boom, therefore, and there are many stepping up to ride the wave. Fast Company’s top ten most innovative companies in Africa for 2014 includes the likes of Sterio.me, a start-up that is rolling out a trial of its mobile e-learning service to 75 schools in Nigeria, and Aweza, a South African translation app that aims to leverage the growing mobile arena and encourage cultures to interact. Companies such as these are showing that the combination of technology and local application is indeed a powerful one.

Developing and investing in this new generation of African tech entrepreneurs must become a prime focus for government, business and training institutions alike as we seek to build an African innovation ecosystem and gear up for the age of technology innovation on the continent.

Partnerships will be key here. At the 2014 SEED SA Symposium, a multi-stakeholder forum fostering social and green entrepreneurship in Africa, it was said that one of the challenges for African entrepreneurs is securing partnerships with technical experts and research institutions, in particular, to ensure cross-fertilisation. When different areas of expertise collide – magic can happen. Different hybrids are already emerging. Novel partnerships, such as those recently concluded between the UCT Graduate School of Business and the MTN Group (see http://www.gsb.uct.ac.za/Newsrunner/Story.asp?intContentID=2417) and Silicon Cape and FNB, are exploring innovative forms of business and challenging the traditional roles of business in society.

And this is just the beginning. With the right partnerships and attitudes Africa is perfectly positioned to take the lead in the next generation of technology and in so doing has the opportunity to build a new economic framework where business and communities prosper.

The above is a shortened version of a column co-written with Sifiso Dabengwa, CEO of MTN, for Fast Company. The full article can be found on the Fast Company webpage
http://www.fastcompany.co.za.

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