BBC Future

Matter of Life & Tech

Reinventing technology in Africa for Africans

Images from Nairobi's iHUb (Copyright: Jonathan Fildes)

(Copyright: Jonathan Fildes)

Over the coming months, A Matter of Life and Tech will feature a range of voices from people building Africa’s tech future. The first is Senegal-born, serial entrepreneur Marieme Jamme, who argues the continent needs to make urgent changes to put itself on the right course.

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?

‘Wasted opportunity’

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.

In order to do this, we need deep reform by policy makers, who can do much more to promote business activities in science, technology and innovation. They can foster the creation of an environment where entrepreneurs can grow their small and medium–size sized companies, improve access to capital and help firms establish international partnerships. 

The global rules for foreign direct involvement in how Africans should run their businesses must now also change. Countries with “robust” infrastructures - like South Africa, Rwanda, Zambia, Gabon and Angola - with highly trained workforces and large domestic markets are positioning themselves in this highly competitive game and are succeeding. Other countries must follow their lead.

There is also a need for the education system in Africa to incorporate and promote science and technology if they want to match the rest of the world in the decades to come. Connecting African countries with the internet only cannot always be the mean of successful development programs.

‘Missing pieces’

Progress like this that involves government will take time and cannot be relied upon alone. So we must seize on home grown initiatives, like the tech hubs, and nurture them. We must give them – and the people who work in them - every chance of succeeding on their own terms. Africans are entrepreneurial by nature.

At the moment, access to seed capital, Internet connections and operational cost are extremely high; local and international visibility, credible references to allow private and government’s contracts, and the lack of business development or overall marketing strategy knowledge.

The idea of these tech hubs is to provide a space to Africans to unlock their talented potential, to share, create, innovate and transform.  They should be “for Africans by Africans”. Already, I see umbrella groups and bureaucracy beginning to invade these spaces. We must strongly reject this and create an environment where the founders and leaders of these hubs are empowered to dictate their own futures. It should come from the bottom up.

We must also find them new sources of money. Currently, they must rely on significant funding from outside sources to succeed.  African governments and the private sector needs to be more supportive as neither donor nor investor money will last forever.  We are already seeing investors, getting hot under the collar about their return on investment. Whilst technology giants, such as Google, are coming to the party but there is a missing piece in the puzzle.

Africa is known to have resources and some wealthy African individuals - including people within the diaspora - with a solid connection to their country of origin. They can surely invest more into the private sectors in Africa, transfer their skills or even be their mentors. These tech hubs need all the help they can get from these individuals, but we know there is a deficit of trust amongst Africans and rarely see these people invest into sectors they are not familiar with.

But, I say, all of this must change. We as Africans have an opportunity to shape our own destiny, work together and collaborate more. We must seize the opportunity and enable the communities around us. Our great communal force is needed to make this work.  All of us need to get involved.

Do you agree with Marieme? If you would like to comment on this article or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Marieme Jamme is a CEO, blogger, technologist and social entrepreneur with a commitment to helping empower her fellow Africans through education, leadership, social entrepreneurship and economic development. She was recently nominated by CNN as one of the Top 10 more influential voices on Tech in Africa.