This was initially delivered as a keynote address at the Techpoint Build conference on 28th August, 2020.
The future of technology concerns all of us. For example, across our companies, we are having conversations about the impact of the fourth industrial revolution, AI, or perhaps big data. We expect the future of technology will impact how we live, work, and relate to one another.
Various reports, for example, have suggested that agriculture is the best way to alleviate poverty in Africa so we will likely see future technologies focused on adding to agriculture value chains. We will also see the manufacturing space transforming and causing rapid economic growth. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that we have the potential to totally disrupt the manufacturing space and build and consume sustainably within the continent.
We are increasingly seeing the potential of Artificial Intelligence and Data Science as new tools for everything from hiring talent to diagnosis. Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality have become an acceptable and exciting way to experience places and products. We see AR and VR being incorporated in the education space as well.
So we know for sure that the tools are available that will facilitate Africa being a powerhouse of technology and innovation. The inclusion, awareness, and resilience built into African innovation is unmatched. But we cannot view the future of technology and the role of Africa on the basis of tools and their capacity. Instead, we must look at ourselves as Africans and our capacity to embrace the future of technology while positioning ourselves and Africa to be the powerhouse it has the potential to be.
In discussing the future of technology and the role of Africa, I want to start by talking about the success of African innovators in our ecosystems, I’ll then look at the challenges that these African innovators have had to surmount and finally I will share some thoughts on Africa’s role and what Africans need to do to enjoy the benefits of what the future of technology promises.
Africa’s innovators are building
The prospect of what technology can do in the future is exciting. From wearable technology to flying cars and more, it many times feels like our favourite sci-fi movies are coming true. But in getting there, we must first acknowledge where we are now. And we are in a great place. African innovators are doing amazing work. They are building life-changing products. Look at some of the people we heard speaking here yesterday – Paga who are making it incredibly easy for people to access and use money, Helium Health who are improving how medical records are kept and hospitals managed, Gebeya that’s training and finding opportunities for tech talent. Across the continent, high impact innovators are improving the lives of Africans with solutions that open up access to markets for small businesses like Sky.Garden an eCommerce platform, solutions that provide high-quality education to students in rural Africa using mobile technology like Eneza, solutions that provide a ready market for farmers like Taimba which is innovating the agricultural value chain.
The huge impact of these innovators and others is felt every day and yet they are not working at capacity. They have only just scratched the surface. The ability of these innovators to work optimally is hampered by fragmented ecosystems, bad infrastructure, and growing levels of poverty.
Africa’s problems are well documented
According to the World Bank, as Africa’s population increases, so does the number of African living in poverty. In fact, if nothing changes, global poverty will become increasingly African, rising from 55% in 2015 to 90% in 2030. According to the UN, in Africa complete eradication of poverty in all its forms is becoming increasingly out of reach. IFC describes Africa as having the worst health, on average, in the world.
The status quo can feel hopeless. These reports do go on to talk about the interventions that the organisations and their partners can make to improve these statistics. But as Africans, we have the responsibility to own our future and make it the kind of future that allows us to live in prosperity.
While we have necessary components for a thriving innovation ecosystem, like mission-driven innovators with grit, academic and research institutions, large corporates, governments, entrepreneurship support organisations, investors, fragmented ecosystems mean that Africa is not using the resources it has at its disposal efficiently. Different ecosystem players are not talking to each other or leveraging each other’s strengths, or surfacing opportunities for each other. We need to do more.
The responsibility to make Africa rise lies with Africans. It is our role as Africans for Africa to ensure that it is a source of abundant food production, resilient technology, a skilled workforce, and that we add value to our abundant raw materials as manufactured products, and in so doing, become a powerhouse.
The Africa We Want
As human beings regardless of where in the world we are, we want a decent standard of living, we want clean water to drink, we want food to eat, we want access to basic education, we want infrastructure that works, we want safe spaces to live in. These are captured in continental frameworks like the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063 and in global frameworks like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, giving impetus to these basic human needs.
As human beings, we want an Africa where everyone is guaranteed a decent roof over their heads and money in their pockets to buy food. We want an Africa where whether or not we have clean drinking water is not based on our economic status. We want an Africa where children do not die from preventable diseases. We want an Africa where crops can be harvested and delivered to those who need them, still fresh and still affordable. We want an Africa where access to quality education is not determined by where on the continent you are and how much money you have. The role of Africa, the role of Africans, is to make this happen and using available tools, especially technology, to make this happen sustainably.
The role of Africa
The future of technology in Africa is in Africa creating an enabling environment for solution providers to do what they do best. This must be done through funding African innovators who are building African solutions, increasing opportunities for trade across Africa, redefining our matrix of success, and using the power of communities.
Access to capital
For the tech to work at maximum capacity, African innovators need money. It’s important that startups are self-aware and know what steps to take to address their biggest internal challenges. This makes them more attractive to investors. As startups derisk, funders must learn to take more risks. Funders play an important role in catalysing innovation in Africa.
There is a silent revolution taking place in Africa, and African innovators are right at the centre of it. As the population of Africa grows, so do the markets. Innovators are solving for the financial sector, healthcare, education, food sectors, and so on. Spending by African consumers and businesses is set to hit close to $6.7 Trillion by 2030 and innovators are building the products that consumers and businesses will want to spend this money on. There is a business case for getting in early to fund these innovators whose products are set to succeed.
Increased opportunities to trade
With the launch of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, there is a great opportunity for industrialisation of Africa and the scale of businesses. The free trade area will lower trade barriers and open up markets for African businesses and African innovators are not to be left behind as they scale by ensuring exportability and higher productivity of their products and services. The free trade area is providing a vehicle for scale that the innovators will use. African funders looking for scalable products that will bring good returns should get in now and back the innovators building solutions for an Africa that is opening up.
For example, we all know one of Africa’s challenges has always been infrastructure. According to the Africa Development Bank, Africa has made great progress in improving this. Projections of electrification rates suggest a steady rising trend to about 70% in 2040 providing access to 800 million more people. At the current trajectory, broadband coverage in Africa will likely reach 99% by 2060. The last twenty years have shown us what Africans can do as connectivity and basic infrastructure improved. Imagine what the next twenty will bring! The promise of improved infrastructure and the trickle-down positive effect on the kind of solutions innovators will build successfully is another reason for African funders to fund African innovators. Africa’s infrastructure is catching up with Africa’s innovators and the result will be mind-blowing investable future technologies.
While exits and acquisitions are huge wins that we want to have or hear about in Africa, let this not be the major matrix of success. Are the innovators who save lives and feed families not successful? What of the innovators in the logistics space who move people and goods. Are they not enabling economies and is this not success? We need to begin to celebrate more our innovators who are building solutions that are transforming Africa whether they are elusive Unicorns or the numerous Zebras.
In redefining our measure of success, we begin to nurture even more innovators who understand the potential of Africa and want to do their part to help Africa realise its dream of prosperity. We grow more innovators who understand the potential of Africa’s youth force, who understand the potential that exists in an Africa with great infrastructure and want to innovate to build that infrastructure or want to innovate for an Africa in which that infrastructure exists.
The power of community
The greatest enabler for innovators is community. We are not a silicon valley nor do we want to be. We are Africans around the world concerned about the welfare of Africans around the world.
Even as we build solutions, we must focus on our humanity. African voices must be heard in conversations on Africa and technology built for Africans. We hear each other when we are part of a community.
We need to embrace the power of community in the way we include each other, in the way we trade, in the way we work, in the way we build, in the way we teach. The need for accountability of resources, the need for support for African innovators to ensure they have as much opportunity as other innovators – these are all needs easier addressed collectively. Africa does not operate as a collective and this has been our greatest weakness. At Afrilabs we are nurturing a Pan African community of hubs. It’s a community where a hub in Egypt will willingly share business ideas with a hub in South Africa and a community where a hub in Kenya will willingly train entrepreneurs in Ghana. Being part of a community we can understand each other’s challenges and can sympathise and empathise. We can also be part of each other’s solutions.
Sometimes the solution to a challenge is sitting right next to you, not halfway around the world. In Kenya for example, the cost of bandwidth for high-performance servers was prohibitive but when we spoke about it in the innovation community, we saw the rise of local, professional cloud hosting and Africa focused data centre providers.
There needs to be more collaboration across sectors. Governments, academics, corporates, investors need to bring their best to the table and need to talk to each other more. We must pick the right challenges and match them with the right solutions if the future of tech is going to be truly beneficial to Africa.
We must take a people-first approach to sustainable tech interventions in Africa. Join a community. There is someone there who needs your help and there is someone there building a solution for your challenge. Go back to your high school communities and give talks, go to your universities and show them what communities they can plug into after school. If you are stuck, come to Afrilabs and we will help you find a community to plug into. We have a network of 225 hubs across 47 African countries and our network is constantly growing. We can even create new communities with you although so many exist already from faith-driven investors, to trade enthusiasts to developers, policymakers and many more.
I invite you to join the Afrilabs Annual Gathering from the 12th to 14th of October when we’ll do a deep dive into the need for resilient innovation in Africa and will talk about the communities that can make this happen. You can find more information on the Afrilabs Annual Gathering on www.afrilabs.com