Connecting The (Red) Dots

The Critical Relationship Between Connectivity & Entrepreneurship in Africa

I was on my way to GES in Nairobi last year, browsing my News Feed, when I came across this infographic that used red dots to plot the location of all the Fortune 500 companies in world.

The first thing that struck me was how many of Fortune 500 emerged from just three areas of the world: the US, Europe and East Asia.

Then I noticed that Africa — a continent of 1.1 Billion people, had no red dots. The only other continent with zero dots was Antarctica. Even North Carolina, the State where I grew up, had three.

At first I felt disappointed. But the more I thought about the map, and the opportunity of the present moment, I felt upbeat. I know things are going to change. Within 10 years, a Fortune 500 Company will emerge from the African continent. Whether it’s a new company or an existing one, Africa will soon have its red dot.

Why do I make this prediction? It’s simple — connectivity.

It will be the inevitable result of what happens when the exponential economic power of the internet meets the rising rates of African connectivity.

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that connectivity is not just a coincident factor of strong economic growth, it’s a catalyst.

In any business, costs are a function of logistics, and logistics are a function of access to information. Connectivity improves the capacity of capital. It helps money move faster and smarter.

And that’s why the connectivity revolution upended the Fortune 500.

The list used to be a very steady. Now, nine out of every ten Fortune 500 company from 1955 is gone. They’ve been replaced by companies like Amazon, Google, eBay, Salesforce, and Facebook that didn’t existence a decade ago and are now an indispensable part of the global economy.

We now live in a world where revolutionary ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes, all it takes is a connected person with a good idea and nothing to lose.

Moreover, this revolution has yet to go global.

There are at present only about 3.2 billion people connected to the internet. The rest — a majority of the earth — have yet to sign online.

As much as this represents a challenge, it represents an immense opportunity, particularly for Africa. There are about 330M people connected to the internet in Africa. That’s a lot, but it’s only about 30% of the continent’s population. There is too much genius, too much entrepreneurial energy in Africa to leave in place the status quo.

Which is why at Facebook, we’re committed to closing this gap in Africa and across the world.

Just over two years ago, we launched Internet.org: an initiative dedicated to closing the connectivity gap and empowering global innovation.

Through our efforts, we have identified three principle barriers to connectivity: infrastructure, affordability and awareness. That is, people can’t go online because they either don’t live within range of sufficient bandwidth, or they cannot afford the bandwidth, or they don’t have a reason to go online.

All three barriers are evident throughout Africa.

To address these barriers, Facebook has invested in number of connectivity projects to make data more affordable, more local and more relevant, from Free Basics, to Express WiFi, to Aquila, to the Telecom Infra Project, to launching satellites into orbit.

Free Basics, which gives people the opportunity to gain exposure to the value of the Internet by exploring free websites on their mobile devices, is already live in 40 different countries, including 21 in Africa, in partnerships with over 50 operators and over 600 developers. This work could not have been done without solid partnerships across the private and public sectors. We need more organizations passionate about tackling these barriers.

When I was in Nigeria for the launch of Free Basics, I visited a number of start-ups and met a few entrepreneurs. What I saw both frustrated and inspired me. I saw first-hand how ambitious, determined and creative people were bringing the power of connectivity to the people of Africa. But I also I heard many stories of entrepreneurs burning through their startup capital — literally — on fuel for their generators, just to keep the power consistent.

These meetings reinforced my understanding that local experiences mattered for global connectivity. As much as Facebook was enabling connectivity through Free Basics, the program meant nothing without the services and product experiences built by local entrepreneurs for the historically unconnected populations within their own community. Facebook can help people connect, but African talent will build the African internet.

Of course, the road ahead will not be easy, but I am confident in the power of connectivity to transform lives and businesses. And I am confident in my ten-year prediction because I am confident in Africa.