in Africa, Business, Emerging Markets, Innovation, Technology

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TL;DR: The cart before the horse refers to solving African problems in the wrong order. For example,

  • Problem – Internet Access: Sponsoring free internet so that Africans have access to Facebook and/or Twitter as a means to communicate. But yes, they are consuming. For how long if they can’t afford to power those mobile devices anymore? Let’s figure out solid and constant electricity first. Innovation that enables cheaper solar to keep their devices and/or homes powered? By the way, if they had marketable skills and a living wage, they would be able to actually pay for the internet – long term. Ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Employability and employment also need to be sorted first. At that point, not only will they browse the internet, they will buy the things showing up on those ads – also in massive scale.

In the recent past, I have become very fiercely pro-Africa, and all Africa-related endeavors. I am typically one to maintain a passive outlook, focusing on the life in front of me, as opposed to worrying about the things presumably outside my control. I have been a little more liberal about the things I consider out of my control. When we look at the bigger picture, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and retreat back to our little corner, where everything is fairly predictable and actions produce immediate results. However, I’ve learned that you only stretch wider when you exercise your stretch. More on that topic for another day. I am now focusing on more strategic activities I can engage in, to prepare me for my meaning; the things that I wish to accomplish out of my lifetime.

That said, one of the major things I want to do with my life is to creatively use technology to solve African problems. A lot can be said about that, but I won’t go into too much detail here. I have taken to reading more African history books, following more African news outlets and engaging more with a few of my peers who are working on initiatives that enable a paradigm shift of sorts in Africa, in other words, enabling the revolution to happen. I have also been following initiatives that seek to ‘connect’ and/or ‘impact’ Africa on a massive scale from Europe, Asia and the Americas. A few sectors I’ve looked at include micro-lending, commercial agriculture and food processing, art, fashion, technology, among others.

In my observation, I’ve seen a lot of initiatives focus too heavily on creating consumer products and services, without enough focus on creating a groundswell of capable consumers to consume those products and services. From a straw man’s perspective, it’s easy to look at Africa as a captive market. ~1.2 billion people, mostly young and vibrant. Future demographics look even more promising.  However, the majority of that population is still living well below the world’s standard of poverty levels. Not only does Africa need an infusion of capital, Africa needs an infusion of knowledge to leverage the capital and create value. Also, most African countries still struggle with basic amenities that enable large-scale industrialization, like water, constant electricity, good roads etc. These are all problems that need to be solved first if we are not looking to re-enact a 21st century scramble for Africa, where the monies made by African countries from raw materials extracted on our land and sold to developed countries are spent to buy finished goods and services from the same developed countries. A good exposè needs to be done to show how impoverished some of the communities where these raw materials are extracted from are. Some of the companies that go there to extract these raw materials do not even hire people from those local communities. Another topic for another day.

We (African countries) need to start creating our own products, not only to sustain ourselves, but to enable equitable economies where a clear cut middle class emerges to consume the products and services, both locally made and imported on a massive scale. Anyone looking to capitalize on Africa’s favorable demographics for now and the future needs to not only think of selling to, or connecting Africa. They also need to think about creating within Africa, and enabling Africa to create. Not only will it be cheaper, but the people who are employed as a result of the boost in production have a potential to consume anything created locally on a massive scale – after all, what we’re after is the impact both on ROI and *ahem* social responsibility. Furthermore, they will create enough to export – for you. Your ROI.

Those really attractive demographics will not make any sense (or profits) on the potential scale they can if  problems like these are not solved first-

  • Knowledge – Highly specialized technical education. Let’s forget about universities and colleges for a moment. Let’s talk about teaching people how to read, write and speak, how to think creatively, and then teaching them a specialized and highly valuable skill, like backend web development, food processing, oil rig management techniques or 3D modelling etc. – on a massive scale. You get the drill.
  • Food – Let’s talk about new technologies that keep people satisfied and nutrified with less of an agricultural footprint.
  • Infrastructure – Let’s talk about allying with the governments in Africa (on a policy and not execution level, because corruption) to privately sponsor and maintain the delivery of basic infrastructure. Electricity, water, security, and *ahem* high-speed internet.

These things, though presented in an overly simplistic manner, will create an environment where industrialization can thrive to its full potential, raising the middle-class bar to where a significant majority of capable adults are employable and employed. Think 10% of Nigeria’s ~70 million <24 yr old youth and the potential market of consumers when they can afford to consume in the next 10 years. We’ve not even talked significantly about local services – recreation and tourism. The possibilities are endless.