‘Africa Tech’ is the True ‘Africa Rising’
Leading African technology (Africa Tech) innovators believe the African culture has become attuned to the internet age.  The internet-consuming culture is now fully African, they say. As they are some of the leading techies on the continent, they probably know what they are saying. The example of one of them, Jason Njoku – who founded iROKOtv, perhaps the most comprehensive online catalogue of Nigerian movies, popularly known as ‘Nollywood’ – is instructive. His idea was about using technology to meet a longstanding need of Africans in the diaspora, who are typically nostalgic about home, craving content and news about the continent. It also typifies the trend towards making technology more African: Africa Tech is essentially Africans using technology to produce African content targeted at Africans and interested non-Africans alike, and there are quite a couple of those.
Africans have used technology to mobilise millions towards positive political actions. In Tunisia, Lina Ben Mhenni, using her blog, together with other similarly inclined enthusiasts, brought to the fore the wrongs being committed by erstwhile and long-reigning dictator, Zine Ben Ali, who was eventually ousted in the popular uprising that followed. Hers is just one example of how Africans are using information and communication technology (ICT) to push positive agendas for change. Africa Tech has since moved from adapting ideas and products prepared abroad to actually developing end-to-end products from conception to production, aimed at solving specific African problems. From checking if a product is fake, recycling, mobile payments, power supply, documenting African Arts online to facilitating job placements, Africa Tech is the true ‘Africa Rising.’
International Internet Bandwidth Growth by Region, 2011-2015
Africa Tech is in Silicon Valley’s Eye
Africa has become a pioneer of sorts. M-Pesa, the Kenyan mobile money transfer service by Safaricom, a Kenyan telecoms operator, and Vodafone, a British telecoms operator, with more than $1 billion monthly transactions, is now being replicated in far-away Europe. SnapCash, a mobile payment service that allows friends to send money to each other on SnapChat, a messaging app, is based on M-Pesa.3 Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), Kenya’s largest bank, gave out credit worth $89.8 million to five million customers via M-Pesa in 2015. The continent’s trailblazing innovations are precisely because it has limited encumbrances.  For most African countries (ex-South Africa), there are no legacy communication infrastructure assets to worry about. And the large infrastructure deficit – limited electricity, fixed line telephony, bad roads, poor healthcare facilities – that is supposedly holding the continent back, is precisely what puts the continent in great stead to adopt new technologies faster.
Africa has actually become a laboratory of sorts, precisely because of its legacy of deficiencies. It is the reason why chief executives of global technology giants are beginning to invest time, energy and capital on the continent. Bear in mind, there is a myriad of things that these very busy people could be doing with their time. Another driving force is that the nature of work is changing. Task-orientation now means the advantages of having operations in expensive developed markets are increasingly diminishing. Professionals with the requisite skills, especially in services, can work from virtually anywhere there is an internet connection. The location and time-orientation of work is not as important as they once were. Probably for the services sectors, some might argue. What about manufacturing? Well, 3-dimensional (3D) printing would soon allow designs to be transmitted or shared electronically for production anywhere there is a fitting 3D printer.
Africa Tech Replicates Offline Habits without the Hassle
Mobile phones caught on easily in spite of the initial high subscription costs because they enabled Africans to do something they like doing: talking. Social media likewise. Whether it is Twitter, Facebook, or SnapChat, insofar as the platform allows people to interact, share ideas and news about themselves, do business and generally just have fun, Africans have so far been very receptive, especially if it allows for some semblance of privacy; not that any online communication could ever be private. WhatsApp, a chatting and phone call app, did precisely that – that is, before the announcement in August 2016 that phone numbers of WhatsApp users would now be available on Facebook platforms. Considering how valuable WhatsApp has become to its users, most of its at least 1 billion active monthly users would probably still continue to use it. For Africans, a major attraction is probably the ability to make international phone calls cheaply to other WhatsApp users.
And now they not only use WhatsApp to chat, but to do business as well. BalogunMarket.ng does precisely that. The concept: how about replicating the haggling that goes on in the typical open African market using a chat platform where similar interactions already take place in myriad forms. Only this time the bargaining is done via WhatsApp. Balogun market is a popular market in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. The service tries to replicate the actual experience without any of the sweat – visiting the market can be a very testing experience: goods bargained for are actually procured from Balogun market. It was an instant success. Seed investors were quick to notice. The startup got funding to scale up its services and launched its own app ‘BuyChat’ in October 2016. Users can buy goods and services from several Nigerian cities in the first phase, with aims to expand the service to several African cities in the future.
It is much the same way Uber has been a huge success in major African cities, after it first launched the service on the continent in 2012. Like everyone else, Africans have high expectations of advertised services they eventually patronize. Uber does that. Its operations have not been without challenges though. Local cab drivers’ unions have pushed back severely, in South Africa for instance. Regardless, the Uber service remains popular, allowing Africans to call a cab in cities that are notoriously insecure at any time of the day (more so at night) and be assured that they would be transported in comfortable cars without the hassle of handling cash. Uber provides a high level of service that African consumers, those who can afford it no less, had dearly hoped for, for a very long time.
Africa Tech is taking Uber on in any case, in ways that addresses cost concerns that most Africans have, especially since the service is a luxury for most. ‘SafeMotos’ provides an Uber-type service; only this time, motorcycle taxis are used. Initially rolled out in Rwanda, the founders expect to expand it to other East African countries. Because most African cities have numerous corners that cannot be reached by cars, either due to untarred or very narrow roads that are no more than path lanes, motorcycle taxis are the mode of transport of choice. It is exactly the kind of service that Africans need and perhaps the ideal example of how even already established concepts can be totally revamped to suit African needs in surprisingly reassuring ways.
Mobile Technologies Provide Leapfrog Opportunities for African Countries
Technology is disrupting economies globally, more so in African countries. And positively so. Having lagged in innovation in the past, African countries have been better placed this time to leverage on technology, mobile ones especially, allowing them to leapfrog several development stages that are typically de rigeur in other spheres. Still, even as technological advances are buoying the continent towards progress, the accompanying infrastructure and know-how has not picked up pace similarly. About 29 percent of Africans have active mobile broadband subscriptions, a far cry from 77 percent in Europe and still significantly lower than 43 percent in the Asia Pacific region, based on International Telecommunication Union (ITU) data.  Whereas only about 15 percent of Africans have internet at home, 84 percent of Europeans do. Mobile technologies blur the lines on this though: 67 percent of Africans have a mobile phone,  and thus have some access to online content. With mobile technologies evolving ever faster, older but still effective smartphones tend to become cheaper, increasing access.
Faster fourth generation (4G) mobile telecommunication technology is now much desired in any case. But it is only just being rolled out in select African economies. While Egypt was only just completing the sale of its 4G licences in October 2016, Globacom, a Nigerian telecoms provider, rolled out its 4G services in the same month. Globacom has an advantage in that it has its own submarine cable network: the 9,800 km Glo 1 subsea cable extends from the United Kingdom to key West African countries. Its competitors have risen to the challenge regardless, the South African telecoms company MTN no less, rolling out its own 4G services in the same month.
An emphasis on newer technologies may miss the point though. There are still quite a few Africans who do not have access to the smart devices needed to make the most of these advances; albeit the oft-cited statistic that only 15 percent of Africans have smartphones may be an underestimation. Regardless, some telecom firms recognise there could be more smartphone owners if creative financing approaches are adopted. So in addition to aiming for faster internet, they are also funding the acquisition of smart phones. This type of service has long been available in South Africa – the continent’s most advanced economy – though. And in any case, the business model in advanced economies has always been that customers buy phones as part of their mobile service package. This has been difficult to replicate in most African countries because credit histories are not readily available. It turns out technology is changing that as well. The same mobile phone to be funded and the services to be provided could precisely be used to assess the creditworthiness of customers. Even more; cheaper but still powerful smartphones are being produced. In 2013, Huawei produced one in partnership with Microsoft for about $150 a piece, while in Kenya, Safaricom, the M-Pesa pioneer, sold one for about $129.9 The price of leading smartphones is at least $500.
Africa Tech is Solving African Problems
FinTech enables less-expensive SME lending
An online-only lending service to be launched in Nigeria before the end of 2016, as early as October probably, leverages on that. Lidya is a digital bank, at least so its founders, Tunde Kehinde and Ercin Eksin, like to call it, and would be Nigeria’s first online lender. Lidya will only target small- and medium-sized enterprises. It aims to provide unsecured loans of about $500 – $15,000 to them. Initially focused on Nigeria, the founders hope to expand it to other African cities. They will probably succeed. Kehinde used to run Nigeria’s biggest online retailer, Jumia, a subsidiary of the Africa Internet Group, the first African tech unicorn (private technology company worth $1 billion). Lidya is worth featuring because it highlights how the most advanced services could now be easily and cheaply deployed on the continent using technology. Hitherto, these would have required huge investments in brick and mortar infrastructure and the importation of skilled expatriates. Even when these are readily available, they are rarely of the scale that is required or profitable enough, even in the long run, to justify the investment. Banks are adapting as well, but not as fast. The Lidya service would integrally be a partnership with banks, for now at least.
However, the discerning eye can easily see how banks may become increasingly irrelevant over time, in their current form at least, as the medium for their services moves away from bank accounts to mobile phone accounts. Their credit risk evaluation and management know-how would still be in demand though. But even these are increasingly being replicated by specialist software embedded in easy-to-use customer interfaces. Outside of the normal costs of keeping bank tellers, managing cash and other overheads, banks in African countries bear other costs peculiar only to the continent. They often have to supply their own electricity for instance, as power supply remains grossly adequate and epileptic in many African countries. The online model does not require any of these. Other financial services are being replicated online. South Africa-based Hepstar distributes insurance services digitally, making them readily available online in a hassle-free manner, unlike the relatively tedious process of securing similar services from still conservative insurance firms. The above examples barely scratch the surface; African fintech prospects are very bright.
Remote control renewable power
Even if all the funding needed to reduce Africa’s power supply deficit were readily available, there would still be some huge gaps. For instance, there are many remote parts that power transmission lines would not be able to reach. Renewable off-grid power solutions are well-suited for such situations. Considering most rural dwellers are poor, a major problem hitherto was how to ensure customers are able to pay for the power they use. The solution? Customers make payments from their mobile phones. And when they default, the service provider simply switches off the equipment remotely. Since the power produced is off-grid, the payments which are spread over time, essentially cover equipment procurement and maintenance costs, with some markup. In 2014, MTN, the South African telecoms company, in partnership with Nova Lumos, an international off-grid solar power company, rolled out the service in Nigeria. With support from Kenya Climate Innovation, PowerGen Renewable Energy provides a similar service in Kenya.
Drones to the rescue
It has always been difficult to get much needed medicines and supplies to remote areas. Rural Africa is often remote, lacking navigable roads, if at all. Drones can help. And this is not just fantasy; it is already happening. In October 2016, Rwanda, in partnership with an American drone service provider, launched a drone initiative to deliver emergency medical supplies to hospitals, blood from the national blood bank for instance, reducing delivering times to less than 30 minutes from hours previously. Drones can also be less expensively deployed for postal and courier services. Online purchases can be delivered likewise. They can also be used relatively inexpensively to survey farmland, disperse fertilizers, transport needed supplies to disaster zones, and monitor oil and gas pipelines. In Nigeria, where militants in the southern Niger Delta region have been blowing up crucial pipelines, the authorities plan the use of drones to monitor them and even strike erring militants. Farming, mining, and construction activities could use drones for varied purposes as well.
3D printing could standardise manufacturing, limiting entry barriers
There is a lot said about how it is increasingly difficult for African countries to catch up to their developed counterparts, in manufacturing at least. Much talk is now about the need for specialisation in specific parts of an envisaged global value chain. Technology is disrupting that view. Three-dimensional (3D) printing enables a printer to produce almost virtually anything as far as the design can be fed into a computer with software that communicates to a special printer able to produce 3D objects. So it means the location of a factory may not be differential to the quality of products in due course. Wholesale factories do not need to be built at every location. And production can be to order, avoiding wastage and the associated costs. And neither would skill necessarily be a constraint; at least not on the scale that would have been needed had entire production lines been required, as is the case currently. With the designs by say a high-calibre team abroad, the production line team anywhere else just needs to know how to operate a computer. It simply means more localised manufacturing would increasingly be possible, eliminating the need to import goods from distant lands. Instead, a local company could simply buy a license to 3D print the products needed, limiting outlays after the initial first-off costs of procuring the 3D printer. Incidentally, 3D printers are already being made on the continent. In 2013, WoeLab, a technology incubator in Togo, created a 3D printer from electronic waste. Tanzania’s Buni Hub followed with one of its own two years after. So even as the technology is still evolving, advances already made point to this possibility sooner rather than later.
High quality education can now be acquired online
With a smartphone, education technologies now enable an African to have access to the same knowledge as his European or other advanced economy counterparts. Online degrees, videos on dedicated intranet platforms, and a myriad of creative solutions are making these possible. For instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Open Knowledge Initiative provides free online course materials through its OpenCourseWare platform, allowing anyone from anywhere in the world to have access to the same high level of pedagogy that can be found in one of the world’s most advanced higher institutions of learning. A similar model is being adopted for basic education, with primary and secondary school students able to access educational content via mobile phones or tablets that could be borrowed like they do books from their school libraries. True, actual physical human contact does make a difference. This is overrated, however. With numerous carefully-rehearsed videos, books and presentations for further study, comprehension and assimilation is probably better enhanced via the use of these distant or online approaches. And as internet connections become faster, classes could be beamed live to various locations, akin to teleconferencing. The higher expense associated with doing this may be a constraint though.
Policy and Content Need to Speed Up
More local content points to even greater potential
Many of the technological innovations, in the information space at least, that get businesses excited, is related to e-Commerce. What makes tech exciting on the African continent is the growing bouquet of content being developed by locals to suit local needs. Global players like Facebook, Google and so on have taken notice. In September 2016, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, made surprise visits to Nigeria and Kenya. Months earlier, his investment fund had put in $24 million in a Nigerian start-up that incubates software developers and links them with employers. Naturally, Mr Zuckerberg was especially interested in how Africans were using mobile money.
In any case, he was not a quick convert. Three years earlier in 2013, Google’s then chairman, Eric Schmidt (now the Executive Chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google), visited 5 African countries to explore opportunities. Through its ‘Project Link,’ Google was already laying fibre optic cables for faster, but low cost internet connectivity in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Project Link now includes 3 metro areas in Ghana, including the capital, Accra. In 2014, together with the Rockefeller Foundation and British Council, it provided support to ‘Livity Africa’ to set up ‘Digify Africa,’ an online digital training initiative, in South Africa. In 2016, the programme was launched in Nigeria and Kenya. In April 2016, Google, which reckons there could be as many as 500 million African internet users by 2020, 40 percent of an expected population of 1.3 billion, announced it would train 1 million Africans – 90 percent from South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya – in 2017. Also, Google, through its ‘Google for Entrepreneurs’ initiative, is providing support to tech hubs in 5 African countries (Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Uganda).  There is a robust basis for the optimism of these global tech players. Not only are African internet users expected to increase, capacity is growing as well. Relative to other regions, Africa had the highest internet bandwidth growth in 2011-2015, based on data from TeleGeography.
Policy has been slow to catch up
Not surprisingly, regulators are having a hard time catching up. With technologies fast advancing, it is expensive to train conservative regulators as they evolve. That is, for those who are keen to adopt them. More often than not, they are reluctant to do so. Increasingly though, they are putting in greater efforts. The value proposition is a major motivator. Most of the problems African governments are trying to solve are easily fixed with technology. There are usually a few challenges along the way regardless. But by and large, technological innovations are making it easier for these problems to be fixed. Some of the disruptions have not been very salutary for them in any case, social media for instance. African governments have been at their wits end as social media disrupt legacy approaches to managing expectations of citizens. Incidents of corruption are instantly available in online chat forums. Advocacy, both good and bad, is easier and cheaper using social media tools. The good? More accountability. It is hard to spin evidence of bad governance, when pictures and videos are readily available to all and sundry. Ironically, African authorities have not been slow to adapt on this front. It is now customary for heads of state to have social media advisers as part of their public relations team. The Nigerian president has a larger social media relations team than he does the supposedly more vital economic advisory one, it is now often quipped. Such are the times.
Governance has been made easier nonetheless. Now governments are able to sample public opinion faster. Policies are test run by strategically leaking touchy components to test reactions before full roll-outs. On the flip-side, official secrets are easily leaked. Anyone with a mobile phone can leak official secrets. Not too long ago, this used to be the preserve of secret government agents.
Building trust is crucial
Fundamentally, the key issue often with technological innovations, especially in Africa, is one of trust. A system that resolves the trust issue often succeeds. Africa Internet Group is the parent company of at least 10 internet consumer businesses spread across more than 20 African countries. Apart from Jumia, its first venture and the leading online retailer in Africa’s biggest economy, Nigeria, its other platforms sell shoes and clothing, provide services ranging from food delivery, real estate classified ads, cab hailing, to hotel bookings. Another is a platform for car sales. As with other online platforms, trust remains an issue with most African consumers. Probably recognizing this, the tagline on Jumia’s delivery packages is “The online shop you can trust.” And even as Jumia’s reputation precedes it, a lot of its customers, in Nigeria at least, still prefer to pay for their packages only when they receive them, by their door. Although this creates additional bottlenecks and costs, knowing this preference beforehand helps. For such less trusting customers, Jumia staff go with portable point-of-sale (POS) terminals. That way, the transaction is still ‘online.’ It highlights how Africa Tech is solving African problems. Such trust issues are virtually non-existent in developed markets. And global online retailers, Amazon for instance, would rarely be able to adapt their business models for such peculiarities.
Speed of internet connections remains big constraint
Investors looking to leverage on Africa Tech might want to start there. At least, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recognizes that. His plan to beam free internet to African countries via satellites is probably not a bad idea; especially since it already has telecom firms operating on the continent very nervous. Governments could do more certainly. They could make Wifi readily available for free in major cities at first, and later in rural areas as well. African private sector actors are not waiting. Project Isizwe, an Africa Tech initiative by Alan Knott-Craig, former chief executive of Vodacom, a South African mobile telecoms operator, provides free WiFi to poor areas in South Africa, and currently has at least 2 million active users.  Other African countries could benefit from such private-led initiatives, at least on the scale that Knott-Craig’s project does. In any case, some African countries are beginning to realise the urgency required. In October 2016, Cote d’Ivoire announced it would invest $170 million in expanding the country’s fibre optic network by 5,000 km. The project, which would involve the laying of three undersea cables, is expected to last for 18 to 24 months. When completed, Cote d’Ivoire’s fibre optic network will be about 7,000km long, and should crash currently high internet prices. 
Adapt, Evolve, Innovate
How should companies doing business in Africa or looking to venture into the continent take advantage of technology? They should embrace it certainly. Traditional means of advertising are not likely to be as effective as they once were. Companies must have a social media presence. To manage their brands effectively, they have to be involved in never-stopping conversations in online chat forums. They have to be able to provide instant feedback about their products. The mistake should not be made that African consumers have no choice but to switch off at some point during the 24-hour cycle, either due to power or data affordability constraints.
African businesses cannot afford to look on, as social media influencers talk down their products, sometimes just to make mischief or blackmail companies. More importantly, the relative high costs of doing business in Africa can be greatly reduced using technology. Advertising on social media and other online outlets is not as expensive as traditional media, for instance. Expensive business models in financial services can be rejigged relatively inexpensively using online approaches, like in the example of the Nigerian online lender, Lidya. Logistics, pipeline monitoring, and emergency supplies are easier done with drones. Rwanda, which plans to build large-scale drone stations, is a leading light on the continent in this regard. Africans can now acquire high quality education online. So African businesses, especially multinational ones, that harp about a relatively unskilled workforce on the continent, now have a relatively cheap, but still very effective means of training their workforce. They do not have to import as many expatriates anymore. Neither do they have to send as many staff abroad for training as they needed to hitherto.
Smart, green and cost-effective off-grid power solutions mean they have better control over their electricity supply. With increasing internet access, African consumers can also be reached directly for product ideas, testing and feedback. Clearly, business models have to be rethinked, in Africa no less. It would be a mistake, judging from the expositions above, to think that innovation in African markets do not need to keep apace with more developed markets. Incidentally, it turns out the converse could increasingly be the case, if the European and American replications of Kenya’s M-Pesa are anything to go by. Banks, whether abroad or in African countries, stubbornly sticking to their brick-and-mortar approaches, may soon find themselves totally irrelevant. Older banks have been totally kicked off their game by new technology-driven ones that jettisoned branches for automated teller machines and internet banking.
The take-off of African online retailing is also very instructive, considering it was a near impossibility hitherto. Although the trust issue still remains, online retailers like Jumia have been able to get around it, providing a payment at delivery option for instance; with customers still able to decline buying at the point of delivery. Few years back, if you were looking for an apartment to rent in one of the major African cities, you had to deal with a myriad of estate agents, a frustrating experience by many accounts. Now, you can simply visit one of a number of now ubiquitous property websites.
Challenges remain. Policy makers have been slow to catch up. Internet access, though increasing, is still relatively low. Internet subscriptions remain relatively expensive. And even for those who are able to afford access, internet speeds can be slow. These are changing for the better. Fourth generation mobile technology have begun to be rolled out. A number of public and private free wifi initiatives are about. And mobile phone operators are making it easier for more Africans to acquire smartphones, either through credit or facilitating the production of cheaper ones. Such are the times. Whether the entity is public or private, technology is changing everything. Those who refuse to adapt, evolve and innovate, might just find themselves irrelevant.
This article was first published in Africa Business on 8 November 2016.
Published:30 November 2016
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