There is real potential for technology entrepreneurs to be game-changers in solving development challenges in Africa provided there is a supportive high impact tech innovation ecosystem to help growth and scale.
Much has been written on the African tech scene; many referring to the Silicon Savannah as the beacon of hope with others more sceptical of the hype. The African continent has the lowest levels of human and social development and struggles with age-old problems, with large parts of the population living in poverty, facing unemployment, and inequality. Access to basic infrastructure is still extremely low. 75% of the continent’s population lack access to grid electricity and internet; 48% of Africans live in extreme poverty today; and 40% lack access to clean drinking water. Yet, entrepreneurs have found innovative ways to address many challenges leveraging technology as an enabler. For example, innovations such as Peek, a smart-phone based portable eye examination kit for comprehensive eye examinations in even the remotest of settings, Bitland which registers land titles in Ghana to a public blockchain enabling banks to lend against these previously unregistered titles and Nigeria-based Hello Tractor leverages IoT to provide farmers with the opportunity to rent a tractor on demand.
Millions of Africans have simply bypassed traditional infrastructure stages such as landlines and branch banking, skipping straight to cellular telephones and mobile money. Smartphone connections in Africa forecasted to increase to 720m by the end of 2020, more than twice the number projected in North America illustrates the potential case for technology to solve development challenges.
The case for Technology
There are three reasons to be optimistic about the case for technology with a caveat that an enabling digital ecosystem is required to truly reap the benefits for technology to solve Africa’s development challenges.
- Exponential rate of technological change: The pace of technological change is exponential. Looking at how quickly things have changed in the last decade with wireless internet, social media sites and smartphones supports Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that we will not experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century but more like 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate. Looking at the impact of technologies such nanotechnology, robotics and AI, today’s unsolvable problems may very well be easily overcome though technology.
- Technology works notwithstanding infrastructure: Lack of infrastructure has led to various innovations. High penetration of mobile money in Kenya was due to the lack of bank accounts and banking infrastructure. In Rwanda, poor road infrastructure and the time required for blood deliveries to reach hospitals paved the way for Zipline drones to deliver blood supplies to hospitals. As such, Africa’s challenges can be its opportunities. For example, taking the poor African connectivity. Global corporate such as Google’s Project Loon, and Facebook’s org as SpaceX are looking at planet-wide constellations of low-earth orbit microsatellites to beam continuous internet across the planet. Tech enterprises are also looking at the challenges. goTenna Mesh, Tuse and Village Telco have already started to provide connectivity using mesh networks. Kenya-based BRCK provide a hardware solution that provides connectivity in rural and remote locations.
- Strong Entrepreneurship Culture: Africa has the youngest population in the world with a strong entrepreneurship culture of using innovative technologies to solve challenges. Taking 3D printing for example. A Togolese inventor Afate Gnikou built a 3D printer from electronic waste which cost $100; a Ugandan 3 year old received a prosthetic and socket costing $250 a fraction of the normal $5000 price tag; a Zambian scientist is working on a project to create a 3D printed device that enhances the capabilities of existing malaria testing technology. Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence is another example. In addition to corporates such as IBM with Watson or Africa equivalent Lucy, startups are also utilising these technologies. East-Africa based Tala, for example, is a data science and mobile technology company gathering information about a customer from over 10,000 data points to form a financial identity with a credit score within five seconds. SophieBot, is Kenya’s Siri for sexual and reproductive health information and South Africa-based Obami provides customized education through a platform solution that facilitates communication between learners, teachers, parents, and educational administrators.
Whilst these examples are encouraging, in order to truly reap the benefits and use technology to solve development challenges an enabling environment is required. Intellecap’s report: Imagine Africa 2030: Technologies that will shape Africa’s tomorrow: analysed around 100 enterprises across Africa using emerging technology such as robotics, 3d printing, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Block-Chain and identified the need to create a high impact tech innovation ecosystem for enterprises. What was clear is that technology itself was not enough. Innovations are also required to drive technology adoption through business model and process innovation and awareness building. For widescale- adoption in Africa, clear tangible benefits such as affordability, improved access and income enhancement from the tech-enabled products and services is needed. Without a high impact tech innovation ecosystem it will be difficult for tech entrepreneurs to scale and create impact.
Creating a High Impact Tech Innovation Ecosystem in Africa
Three opportunities for creating a high impact tech innovation ecosystem in Africa are apparent:
- Risk- Taking Capital: High risk-taking innovation capital is a gap. Tech investors who understand the potential of technologies are unfamiliar with the African context, while local investors often lack the appetite for technology investments. Philanthropic capital, donor and government funding hence can play a particularly critical role in filling the proof-of-concept funding gap in the short term. In the medium term, intermediary organizations can help build knowledge around the investment needs for tech entrepreneurs and increase tech savviness of investors. Networks of experienced tech investors in other markets such as US or Europe can help crowding in such investors into the African market. In addition, new financing structures such as blended financing structures are needed that can reduce risks and crowd in private funders.
- New forms of Collaborations: Many technology innovators are developing solutions in R&D labs, but often outside the African continent and far away from the context in which those solutions need to be applied for creating maximum impact. Local, real world test-beds that enable quick prototyping and getting instant user feedback are required. Partnerships between corporates, research labs and innovators are required as well as open source data platforms and communities that enable knowledge sharing between local and international communities shortening learning cycles and reduce the risk of failure or making mistakes others have gone through before.
- Business Model Support: Pure technology companies in Africa, for example, local social networks, have had limited success as poor enabling environments have hindered scalability and rapid distribution. Companies which use technology as an enabler that significantly reduces the cost of service delivery and/or improve access to goods and services are more likely to be successful. However, these companies need more than just innovative technology, they require robust business models, revenue streams and process innovations. As such, unlike their Silicon Valley counterparts, these companies require longer time to scale, require more support and capital to scale.
Technology.. Not a silver bullet
To conclude, technology can prove to be game changer in solving development challenges in Africa but it is not a silver bullet. Along with the technology, innovations to drive technology adoption and raise awareness are required. A high impact tech innovation system attracting risk taking capital, enabling new forms of collaboration and providing more business model support can help technology entrepreneurs to grow and scale and truly deliver impact which can be game-changing for Africa’s development challenges.
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