Silicon Valley has competition from China, India, Europe, & now Africa too
A decade ago, it wouldn’t have been unfair to call Africa a little behind in tech. But 10 years later, and the continent is undergoing something of a renaissance. There are now a reported 300 tech hubs in 93 African cities, with particularly notable growth happening in Nigeria and Kenya. In 2000, only 10 per cent of Kenya’s population had access to the internet. Today, this has risen to almost 80 per cent. Rapid population growth, mass urbanisation and increased internet usage have transformed Africa into a focus point for investment and development. Silicon Valley now has even more competition to keep an eye on.
Don’t underestimate Africa
In the West, African countries have been viewed as less economically developed. This attitude has no doubt carried over into perceptions about technological advancements, although some areas have demonstrated highly sophisticated initiatives. Rwanda, for example, rolled out a national fibre optic system in 2011 which has yet to be replicated in countries that are supposedly more developed. Drones are already being used to transport vital medical supplies, and Somaliland is currently using iris recognition in presidential elections, giving the state the most advanced voting register in the world. This trend of technological leapfrogging is also demonstrated by Africa’s move to mobile, bypassing PCs and laptops. Previously, governments have struggled to keep up with this level of change. For example, in 2013 Kenyan officials abandoned the electronic transfer of election results in favour of manual counting, leading to a lack of trust. The failure was thought to be down to technical issues and the underdevelopment of government protocol. Other barriers include gaps in funding, and attracting the attention of international investors. In light of support from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and Chinese funding, this is beginning to change. Governing powers are also recognising the importance of backing technology. In 2014, the African Union committed itself to a 10 year Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024).
What’s next for the African tech scene?
Fuelled by interest and investment, technological leapfrogging in Africa is likely to continue. For example, the steps taken in drone technology could enable faster adoption of UAVs for human passengers before US, European and Asian regulators can catch up. Africa’s mobile revolution has already led to disruption in payments – instead of going to a traditional bank, Africans can transfer money via their phones. In fact, there are now more mobile money accounts in sub-Saharan Africa than there are bank accounts. This will continue to disrupt traditional banking companies, encouraging the domination of FinTech services. The continent’s mass dependence on farming is also likely to lead to improvements in precision agriculture that could surpass similar initiatives in the West. Due to population increase, the future of African agriculture must be modernised to meet demand. In the same vein, technology will continue to answer healthcare needs. By utilising mobile and drone technology, health organisations will be able to provide aid to patients in remote and underserved areas. This could, in theory, help respond to findings that people living in sub-Saharan Africa have the worst health in the world. These examples explain one of the key reasons as to why Africa has overtaken other parts of the world in terms of tech growth. . . hardship, it would seem, accelerates development. The creation of innovative technology for sustainability (such as renewables, AgTech, and HealthTech) has been encouraged by the need to solve potentially life threatening problems. As the population increases, so too must the solutions developed to offer a better quality of life. This will involve training up a skilled workforce, starting with improvements to education.
Until recently, Africa was far from a serious competitor in the global tech scene. Over the course of the last decade, however, this has completed changed. Investors have recognised that the continent provides lucrative business opportunities, with considerable room to expand. Ecommerce, drones, healthtech, agriculture, renewables, biometrics and of course mobile have emerged as key areas of growth, to the point that some have overtaken developments in countries which are thought to be more economically and technologically advanced. The continent’s dependence on mobile could be detrimental if and when smartphones are replaced by wearables and implants. For the meantime, though, Africa should not be underestimated.
Will African countries continue to leapfrog more advanced economies? Could a dependence on mobile services hold Africa back in the long run? Will we see the outbreak of a sub-Saharan investment war between China and the US? Share your thoughts and opinions.