Africa is the hottest date in town.
Not a day goes by without me receiving an email about technology in Africa. NGOs, venture capitalists, wannabe investors, donors or technology providers from the US, UK, and Asia are all looking to explore the Africa continent.
Organisations want to tap into the African market because they have read somewhere in the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, or the New York Times that Africa is booming and that the continent is rising.
That last description is just silly rhetoric as far as I am concerned. But we know that, just like many places around the world, technology is having a transformative impact on people’s lives. In rural Togo a farmer can get real-time information on market prices in the capital through a cellular phone. In Accra, Ghana, entrepreneurs who in the past were not able to get a dial tone on their landline telephones can now connect immediately using Internet telephony. In Kenya, farmers are able to use their mobile phones to get information about their cows and seeds. And in Niger, the Bankilare Community Information Centre downloads audio programmes from the African Learning Channel and rebroadcasts them on local radio.
These are just some of the countless projects helping to put Africa on the map. But what has really made the continent the darling of the tech sector recently is the extraordinary growth of tech hubs – places where coders, hackers, entrepreneurs and just plain geeks can come together to create new digital products and set up businesses. Their importance is represented in a piece written by Nairobi-based tech Entrepreneur Erik Hersman for the BBC. Since the first one - the iHub in Nairobi - was opened in 2010, tech hubs and labs have been mushrooming across Africa. It is in places like these that innovation is happening, leading to an explosion of mobile applications developed by coders on the continent.
When Africa is written about in these breathless terms it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and begin to think optimistically about the future. Could the next Silicon Valley be on the continent? Will the next Google emerge from Lagos? Is the next Mark Zuckerberg already waiting in Nairobi or Accra?
These are all positive, vibrant-ways to think about technology in Africa – and a welcome change to the usual negative narratives we hear about the continent. But, I believe, our optimism needs to be tempered. If we are to meet any of these challenges, we need to make some serious changes.
First, is something I have come to call “passive colonisation”. Most African countries have now celebrated 50 years of independence, but the colonialist mentality remains. Africans still lack the confidence in doing things for themselves. As much as we have creative people in Africa, there is an intellectual weakness amongst Africans and a lack of talent and a deficit of trust.
This is compounded by decades of reliance on NGOs and Aid. In the tech sector this manifest itself as duplicated projects, quick-trial pilots with no back up funding, well-meaning competitions run by big institutions without any sustainable marketing plan for the technologies they produce and investors still reluctant to fund small projects because of fear or knowledge of the African market. Finding reliable relationships can be also a challenge.
In addition, there is a new generation of well meaning western techies invading Africa. They are creating businesses for Africans. They claim to have the solutions for Africans and talk on the behalf of Africans. But, this can’t continue. Africans must learn – and show – they can do it for themselves. We are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past and wasting an opportunity that now presents itself.