Technology in Africa is a piercingly relevant topic. With one of the largest youth populations in the world, and with the strong ‘digitalisation’ of the continent taking place, there is no question whether Africa will be the next big player in the global economy. A more relevant question, however, is whether Africa will be a big player in the digital, tech and knowledge economies that are so rapidly permeating every aspect of today’s society?
In acknowledging the many complexities inherent in Africa’s tech landscape, as well as the infinite amount of statistics, variables and contingent factors that play a role in understanding it, this article attempts to shed some light on the current state and potential future state of tech development in Africa.
What’s my objective? To highlight, unpack, and override many of the misconceptions surrounding African development, painting a new picture of what an African future could look like.
So, what do we know?
In limiting this conversation to Sub-Saharan Africa (because yes, the entirety of Africa is that vast), it’s current population is estimated to be almost 860 million strong. In terms of future projections, the World Bank estimates that by 2060, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa could be as large as 2.7 Billion people. Of all the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, DRC, Niger, Zambia, and Uganda will contribute the most to the world’s total, with Nigeria projected to overtake the USA’s population by 2050.
Currently, over 60% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is under the age of 25, meaning that it has one of the largest, if not the largest youth populations in the world.
On the topic of development, we know that only 31% of the African population currently has access to the internet, with the rest of the world’s average being somewhere around 52%. On top of that, research has shown that over 420 million people (2016) in Sub-Saharan Africa are connected with smartphones, showing a 43% penetration rate. Astonishingly, this number is set to be over half a billion by 2020, which makes Africa the fastest growing mobile market.
What does tech development in Africa actually look like?
Contrary to the traditional ‘underdog’ narrative that has so strongly been imposed on Africa over the past 100 years, things have changed drastically for the better on the African continent.
If we look at what’s happening within Africa’s tech scene, it is home to over 200 innovation hubs and over 3500 tech ventures. With local incubation offices like iHub and 88mph appearing more and more frequently, and with the overall level of education having improved staggeringly over the past 20 years, African tech entrepreneurs are coming up with groundbreaking concepts and business models to solve local, contextually relevant issues.
Take Farmdrive for example. Farmdrive is a digital recordkeeping platform that enables bankers to establish credit ratings and determine which farmers are most optimally suited for small loans. Initially, Farmdrive began with 50 farmers as a form of pilot program. Today, over 830 farmers have received financing, with the company only planning to expand further in the future.
Similarly, a Kenyan app called iCow enables herders to better manage their cattle populations, whilst an originally-Rwandan app called SafeMotos is drastically improving the market for local transportation, saving countless lives in the process.
Perhaps the best example of contextually-grounded entrepreneurship in Africa: the M-Pesa initiative. Launched in Kenya in 2007, M-Pesa enables anyone with a cellphone to withdraw or deposit cash at shops without having to own a bank account. This improved the flow of money within Africa drastically, making life significantly easier for many people in the process.
What’s my point in highlighting all of these examples? That African tech entrepreneurship is a budding landscape filled with generally young, bright minds that apply their skills to solve uniquely African problems. This notion of context-based problem solving is something I can’t stress enough, as it is a crucial component in fostering development within an economic climate such as Africa’s.
What’s coming from the West?
Next to the developments that I’ve just mentioned, there are multiple efforts from the global ‘West’ to the infiltrate and grow connectivity in Africa, as well as the African tech scene as a whole.
Facebook’s co-founder and chairperson Mark Zuckerberg has recently launched the Internet.org initiative, a plan to digitally connect 100 million people in Africa. The initiative consists primarily of the Free Basics app, a platform that provides free access to people in Africa to certain website, including Facebook and Whatsapp. The initiative has been rolled out in 27 African countries, and relies on partnerships with local mobile operators and carriers, such as Airtel, to ensure that users aren’t required to pay data costs.
Google is of course also in the running to become a Tech leader in Africa, with initiatives in place such as Project Link: a connection of undersea cables, mobile networks and internet service providers. Google has a multitude of other initiatives unfolding in Africa, such as it’s Digital Skills For Africa program, Digify, an online academy that provides free training to young Africans in areas of digital marketing and online business development. Read more here about how Facebook and Google are “fighting for connectivity” over the African continent.
What’s coming from the East?
As impressive as what it is to learn about the initiatives that Western giants such as Facebook and Google have running in Africa, many people aren’t aware that Africa is far closer aligned with the East than what is generally perceived.
According to a recent Mckinsey report, China has become Africa’s most important economic partner over the past two decades. From initially being a small investor in the continent, China-Africa trade has grown at approximately 20 percent per year, with an additional 15 percent estimated to exist when nontraditional, often informal economic flows are included. Across the African continent, it has been shown that over 10,000 Chinese-owned firms are operating and continuously expanding. From trade to investment, infrastructure financing to small business development, the nature of Chinese intervention in the African economy varies extensively in breadth and depth.
In the tech space, Chinese smartphone manufacturer Tecno has a serious footprint on the African continent. With durable smartphones selling for between $50 and $100, Tecno has managed to acquire a market share of 25% within the smartphone industry, whilst its holding company, Transsion Holdings, is estimated to have a 40% share in Sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, Jack Ma, the founder and chairman of Alibaba has also recently announced the launching of Africa’s Young Entrepreneur Fund, a $10 million initiative to help 200 budding African entrepreneurs learn from Alibaba’s rampant international success.
With Tencent Holding’s messaging service WeChat trying hard to penetrate the African market and compete with Facebook’s Whatsapp messenger, it’s clear that competition is rife over Africa’s technological future. What do I think?
As an Entrepreneur working within the African tech space, and with a firm base in Nairobi, Kenya, I have a first-hand view of the East-West “competition” unfolding. On the one hand, I believe that we shouldn’t be viewing the East and West’s efforts in Africa as necessarily competing against each other. They both are making positive contributions to the project of economic upliftment. At the same time, however, I believe we should acknowledge that they are not necessarily driven by altruism, but by the prospect of strategically acquiring greater international market shares.
Personally, when I look out of the office window in Nairobi where my team and I work from, and then look back at my team, I see a unique, bright and well-humoured mix of Kenyan developers, designers, futurists and leaders. I see the next generation of African tech talent: young men and women capable of developing their own solutions to contextually grounded, local problems. Problems that only they can understand, having spent their entire lives growing up around them.
I believe that as “non-African outsiders” (whether from the East or the West), we’re welcome to try and contribute to Africa’s future development. This contribution, however, should not consist of us trying to steer or determine any particular future, but should rather consist of providing the necessary support structures, knowledge and educational platforms and launch pads for young Africans to solve the problems that only they truly understand.
I’ve seen first-hand: they’ve got the skills, they’ve got vision, and they’ve got the ambition.
Thanks for reading,
This piece was originally publishedhere