What can Africa teach the rest of the world that they don’t already know? That was the last question posed during a panel discussion hosted by the BBC on their show Global Questions, which I had the privilege of participating in recently, alongside African Development Bank (AfDB) Vice President Solomon Quaynor and Kenyan tech entrepreneur Juliana Rotich.
This thought-provoking question got me thinking, and the responses presented to the panel are worth debating. According to Computer Scientist and International Development Researcher, Kentaro Toyama, “Technology amplifies human intent and capacity but is not a substitute.”
Rotich had this to share borrowing from her immense experience. “The intent has always been good, transforming lives, making a difference, and bringing constructive value to millions of people, and this is something that the rest of the world can learn from us…that the intent behind the technology is driven by people.” According to her, this is deeply African; we care about each other and the effects of technology or whatever we do for each other. As a result, our business models are typically inclusive.
For the African Development Centre (ADC), Microsoft’s laboratory is building engineering capabilities not only for Africa but also for the rest of the world. It currently employs over 500 engineers. Our experience over the last three years has shown that African tech innovation is bred by Africa’s own challenges.
For example, we were able to scale down the algorithms that we use on Teams after some of our engineers realised that the platform’s bandwidth was too high for what the African continent could sustainably afford. Some of these African innovations are actually being incorporated into the development of global products, and this is expected to continue as the continent becomes more tech-enabled.
Indeed, all indications are that the continent is on the right track, and the two words – technology and Africa – can now be paired without much effort, as statistics show. In 2008, less than 20 per cent of Kenyans had access to the internet. Today, that figure has risen to more than 90 per cent. Furthermore, investment in tech start-ups is skyrocketing, with over $2 billion raised by tech start-ups in 2020 alone. Last year, the continent also attracted the highest amount of venture capital.
According to AfDB’s Quaynor, broadband infrastructure is being deployed and connected across Africa, and terrestrial fiber is being laid to connect land-locked countries, with the continent’s data penetration standing at more than 50 per cent. Additionally, regulations, which were previously restrictive, are becoming more collaborative and adaptable. This provides a solid foundation for a technological revolution and enablement.
Our people, in my opinion, are Africa’s most valuable asset in terms of technology. As a continent, we are quickly recognising that we are smart and technologically savvy, and the availability of smartphones has completely transformed the sphere. The AfDB, for example, is promoting a programme called Coding for Employment, which aims to create approximately 9 million jobs by providing youth with the necessary technological skills to capitalise on emerging opportunities, with a 50:50 gender split.
With the onset of the pandemic, one of the areas where technology has taken the lead in Africa is the health sector. In a region where the doctor-to-patient ratio remains very low, telemedicine has become critical, with patients in remote areas now being linked to specialists for diagnosis and treatment.
In Nigeria, for example, at the height of the pandemic, when movement restrictions hampered supply chains, technology played a role in connecting drug manufacturers and pharmacists. In Ghana, some remote pharmacies converted into clinics by utilising telemedicine to provide services to patients. The availability of mobile payment systems has also boosted the availability of microinsurance.
Without a doubt, the continent has made significant progress. However, we have only scratched the surface of what is possible, and there are still challenges ahead. Given that the industry is still in its infancy but rapidly developing, inadequate infrastructure, unskilled labour, and an unpredictable regulatory environment continue to be major impediments to the continent reaching its full potential.
It is also critical to understand how Africa operates. With 54 countries, multi-presence in different countries is required for a business to scale, taking into account the various challenges and opportunities presented in each country. Furthermore, the capital that comes in must be patient and long-term in nature, allowing entrepreneurs time to build, learn, test, and fail while still growing their ideas into successful businesses.
One way to address these bottlenecks, particularly the skilling gap, is to invest in the local ecosystem by collaborating with universities to improve curricula to meet the needs of the industry or start-up community. “The other is by addressing intra-African trade barriers, including in our individual mindsets because if you solve a problem in Kenya, you will very likely be able to solve the same problem in Malawi,” Rotich concluded.
Returning to our original question. While there are many lessons for the rest of the world to learn from Africa, it’s difficult to highlight them without bragging about our achievements. This question, undoubtedly, constitutes a solid research topic.
Jack Ngare is the Managing Director, Microsoft’s African Development Centre