Africa is on the verge of a tech revolution and investors, entrepreneurs, thought-leaders and decision-makers the world over are paying attention. A large number of African nations are at a critical juncture in which key urban hubs on our continent are transforming to knowledge-based centers and hotbeds of innovation. As such, investments carry huge potential, hundreds of millions will be brought out of poverty, and standards of living will begin to match those of developed countries.
But all of the wealth and innovation being created and the lives being changed hinge largely on three things: government and private-sector efforts, and the partnership between them.
On the government side, there is a clear understanding in Africa among the more rapidly developing economic players that in order to continue the pace of our progress, technology must be brought more and more to center stage. The red hot start-up scenes in Kigali, Nairobi, and Lagos are excellent examples of the promise that entrepreneurship and technological development offer to both strengthen the economy and serve the needs of their specific populations.
One great model for this success is in India, which a short while ago was more or less in the same stage that many African countries are in today – on the cusp of major success. Exceptionally successful over the past 20 years, India has grown its tech industry to tens of billions of dollars, directly and indirectly employing more than 10 million people. Indeed, their model and others have proven that channeling technological innovation to strengthen a wider economy is a way to simultaneously boost growth while strengthening the foundation for future success. That is exactly why many African countries are well on their way to making infomation and communications technology a core component of their long term growth strategies, including my own country, Rwanda.
Below are a few key factors that we in Rwanda have identified as the most critical to enabling us to unlock Africa’s economic potential through technological innovation. Of course, many of these apply not just to the burgeoning tech economies on our continent, but to any nation looking to compete on a global scale by developing their innovation ecosystems.
1. Prioritizing infrastructure
To truly ensure that technology remains a critical channel to economic growth, we must prioritize the foundations for long term growth. Businesses and individuals must be able to connect and engage with mobile technology every day, following the model of other cosmopolitan countries. Cities looking to become “smart’”will need to give service providers the ability to provide access to their users at all times. Rwanda has already made Internet access a priority throughout the country and soon will introduce Wi-Fi to public places in major cities. A small investment in connectivity offers service providers the ability to engage with customers on a level that competes with international metropolitan centers.
The rise in tech hubs across Africa – right now there are approximately 50+ – is part of a strategy to give young software developers and recent computer science and engineering graduates the training, skills, and support necessary to compete in the international tech economy. Up-and-coming tech entrepreneurs now have dozens of accelerators and centers of innovation combining established tech companies with startups – often set in urban centers – to develop their product and get guidance from seasoned and experienced mentors. Without the infrastructure foundation that only public-private partnerships can provide, the full potential of this sector will never be achieved.
2. Facilitating adoption across sectors
The benefits of technology can be felt far outside of the classic high-tech industries. Information and communications tech developed at one of the many African tech hubs can be used to address critical needs that affect people everywhere. From mobile payments systems like M-PESA, which many suggest has leapfrogged the West in terms of ubiquity and ease of use, to introducing the world’s first drone-port to deliver medical supplies, African nations are certainly aware that the application of technology to more traditional industries is exactly what governments can and should be fostering through their programs.
What’s more, the technology that is solving a problem also contributes to the economy by providing jobs and injecting cash to fix potentially outdated systems. Technological innovation is not limited to the direct impact of a specific startup, but has far wider implications from producing new waves of potential entrepreneurs to enabling innovations that can revolutionize the way African populations engage with everything from healthcare to banking to transportation and more.
3. Attracting international investment
African countries have been actively debunking the myth that the only successful capital injections in the region come in the form of aid from the West or investments in mining and resources. Governments are using business-friendly policies and tax incentives to great effect, and these activities are helping change perceptions and unlock new opportunities. Rwanda’s system is structured to enable anyone to establish a new business in just three hours, and flexible visa policies have allowed Kigali to become a hub for regional entrepreneurs. These types of actions help create a more effective win/win scenario, where the local economy and foreign investors can benefit equally … and substantially.
Investment opportunities in information and communications tech are rich and span from mobile connectivity to hardware development. Top research universities in the West are establishing degree programs in our nations, including Carnegie Mellon in Rwanda, Monash University campus in South Africa, and the University of London campus in Nigeria, and major companies like Microsoft and Intel have invested in Africa’s potential with new programs across the continent. This type of foreign involvement gives valuable guidance to the budding entrepreneurs in our young tech ecosystem. Corporate partnerships with tech giants like Apple, Samsung, and HP demonstrate that international corporations have identified African companies as smart partners, and we must actively work to fulfill on our promise in this regard.
Many are pointing to Africa as the next major tech market. But there is much hard work to be done, and wise government policy is necessary to foster a smart and sustainable ecosystem, as well as more wise investment from international partners. Africa should not be seen as a charity case, but as a continent with an unparalleled consumer base that offers incredible opportunity and value for investments, whose governments are increasingly partnering with the private sector to make these investments even more worthwhile.
At the World Economic Forum on Africa in Rwanda this week, there is a unique opportunity to forge a wider vision for establishing technological innovation as a core channel to achieve our wider socioeconomic development goals and to establish lasting partnerships with key partners from the global innovation and investment ecosystems, to the benefit of all.
Francis Gatare is CEO of the Rwanda Development Board.
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