What can technology do in Africa: Looking at the tools and challenges

On the heels of Facebook CEO’s Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to Africa, some young African leaders and I sat to consider the question Zuckerberg is looking to answer: what can technology do in Africa?

On September 31st, 2016, I had the privilege of moderating a panel on technology in Africa for over a hundred young African leaders. Stars From All Nations, a by-and-for youth social enterprise, organized the second edition of Quantum Leap Career Fair for President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), West Africa. The event brought together 20+ companies in sectors such as education, technology, fashion, agribusiness, real estate and so on.

The goal: explore how these leaders can harness technology, specifically digital and mobile technology, to deepen the impact of their work on the continent.

To note: the YALI cohort is the cream of the crop of their peers. They have been selected from over 10,000+ applicants from 9 West African countries. In the 5-week program held in Accra, these young leaders learn the skills and tools to be effective change-makers in their communities.

On the panel:

  1. Racquel Wilson: Communications and Branding Expert helping innovative companies and leaders tell compelling stories about their work
  2. Moussa Moumouni: Regional IT Manager for Unilever West Africa, one of the largest producers/retailers of consumer goods in Africa
  3. Louis Mensah: Director of Private-public partnerships at VOTO mobile, a mobile platform which connects organizations to their under-heard constituents
  4. Alloysius Attah: CEO and Cofounder of Farmerline, a technology company empowering farmers in Africa

Having been raised in U.S. and returning to Ghana 8 months ago, I had the opportunity to consider this conversation in light of both experiences, comparing and contrasting realities in both places. These are the insights that stood out to me:

  1. We need to urgently encourage young Africans to develop technology enabled capacities and businesses

As the panelists expressed, if we believe that the future of technology in Africa is NOW, then we must embrace and adopt technology with urgency and intention. We must do a better job of engaging in conversations and developing strategies and capacities that will allow young people to learn of and understand the inherent benefits of technology, so that they instinctively want to develop these skills.

Why?

There were way too many young leaders in the audience working on a number of projects for which they did not have an active presence online — neither a website or social media account. A young woman came up to me at the end of the panel to share that she does hair and sews African clothing but is not online and wants to learn how to get there. I was excited about the possibility of showing off her skills and creations to a world now eager for African clothes and fashion.

It occurred to me: this woman’s absence online is a huge loss for the continent; a loss magnified by the sheer number of Africans in her position.

In fact, a question we must all ask ourselves is this: what is the world missing from Africa because we do not have access to the ideas and talents of these young people?

2. The tools for business in Africa may and will look different than that elsewhere

I asked our panel to list the technologies they use in their work. They all mentioned Google drive and email for their effectiveness in sharing and collaboration. I intimately know and understand that many young Africans, including those in some top tier universities around the continent, are not using the cloud software (Google Drive), but are rather, still sharing, copying, and re-composing their projects. It is quite costly to stay online and do work.

But, what young Africans do have and use: WhatsApp.

Whereas Whatsapp is scarcely used in the U.S., in Africa and elsewhere in the “developing world”, Whatsapp is a prominent feature of our daily lives. “Whatsapp for Business” is a reality. Panelist Alloysius Attah shared the importance of the app for collaboration between his team and their partners at Farmerline.

With dispersed teams and customers (ex. some members in Accra & Kumasi, Ghana & the U.S. at VOTO mobile) and data inefficiencies across the continent, Whatsapp stands out as a cheaper alternative to perhaps other more effective tools for team management and productivity. In fact, the same can be said of mobile money — a tool initially designed to increase access to banking for the informal sector — with a growing presence in the formal sector.

3. Technology is still expensive, both directly and indirectly for businesses, entrepreneurs, and leaders in Africa

Even as the internet continues to penetrate further into the continent, staying connected is expensive. Young African leaders face extraordinary costs for data, and constant service interruption, power outages, and slow delivery makes staying productive online a huge battle.

Panelist Moussa Moumouni explained that one-way Unilever West Africa deals with connectivity issues is by having 2–3 providers. While a great solution for a fortune 500 company operating in Africa, it is an impossible solution for the young coder or marketer, and the implications of this reality must be considered as we forge ahead.

4. The consumer market for technology products and services is not ready for the innovative products being developed

VOTO Mobile and Farmerline are two companies whose mission would suggest a direct consumer strategy. VOTO mobile connects the under-heard through cheap two-way communications. Farmerline gets relevant information to farmers to improve productivity and yield.

But it is incredibly difficult to get a farmer or a person off-grid to first know about, then buy into and finally start using a new technology at a rate that will allow a startup to scale effectively.

One strategy that works is this: “sell upstream” or business-to-business. As panelist Alloysius Attah shared, Farmerline later decided to connect with organizations working with farmers rather than farmers themselves.

A consumer segment that is not ready for your product is no reason to give up. Rather, re-engage and explore what other parties and consistencies in your market are connected to your direct consumer and can make use of your product or service.

5. Young African leaders are willing to train and engage their generation and those coming after

Perhaps the best question that came from the audience was this: “What packages do you or your company have for young Africans who want to develop their skills and build their businesses?”.

While the panelists said they did not have “packages” available (to which we all laughed), they all offered to provide opportunities for YALI fellows to engage and learn from them. Many even said they would open up internship opportunities for this cohort and others willing to learn.

This is the great news! Though challenges abound in developing a technology-enabled Africa, sharing resources, talent, and tools is one way to leverage each other for maximum impact.

Bridget Boakye is the co-founder and managing director at YNG Interns Africa, an online platform connecting skilled Africans to internship opportunities on the continent and virtually. She is passionate about technology, startups, women &girls issues, and Africa. You can reach her at bridget@ynginternsafrica.com

This post was first published by Viasat one