Within this new era of knowledge economies, where the internet has flattened the world and digital entrepreneurs are building companies on the backs of binary codes and software modules, members of the African diaspora can play unique roles in re-inventing Africa’s future and catalyzing the growth and development of entrepreneurial ecosystems in their home lands.
Some of these homelands have been long forgotten by a generation of diaspora who were fed up with socio-economic ills and the lack of local leadership to guide their version of 21st century Africa. Another generation of diaspora couldn’t be bothered by the subjectively slow pace of incremental change, while fully engulfed in their day-to-day lives, careers, family and worldly distractions.
Over the last decade, governmental agencies, multilateral institutions, diaspora organizations, and other civil-society groups with an interest in Africa have stepped up their collective efforts to re-engage the diaspora and re-invigorate the continent — a continent that is bursting at the seams with entrepreneurial actors, and poised for an innovation renaissance that will dwarf our most recent economic revolutions as a human race. The signs are everywhere, and African diasporans are urged to pay attention and join the movement to positively influence the sociocultural perceptions of entrepreneurship.
With regards to innovation on the continent, the development ecosystem has a few key characters who hold a collective responsibility towards the future of digital entrepreneurship on the continent.
In the context of this piece, the expat is foreign born with deep ties to the continent through nuclear and extended family relations. He was born in a fully functional hospital; she attended a local public school with standard educational practices; they studied African history at the collegiate level, as a course or as a degree minor, to fuel their curiosities about their homelands and debunk myths and stereotypes within their local communities. They visit the continent occasionally for ceremonious social gatherings. They may require a travel visa in order to gain entry into their ancestral lands. They enjoy frequent visits from relatives living back home, who bring stories, culture and cuisine and make good natured jokes on how “there are so many opportunities for folks like you back home”.
The expat enjoys and appreciates functional infrastructure. She understands business ethics and her cultural nuances influence her empathy and apathy depending on what day of the week it is. His western views support the opportunity theory and his civility allows him to chose wisely.
At times, the expat is lonesome and at cultural crossroads with trying to address the most important elements of her life’s work. Other times, he is overwhelmed by the daily activities and work-life balances that serve as social landmines towards perceived success. In general, they are victims of their own sophistication and often require subtle reminders that the continent that was once dark and dreary is poised to soon, very soon, become the land of milk and honey.
The repat is busy, always busy. Busy acculturating, busy bench-marking. Busy adopting, and busy adapting. The Repat was born on the continent and emigrated for greener pastures, a better education, more opportunities and a “change of scenery.” She is truly transcontinental and has officially earned her seat at the table because she is well-educated, driven and poised for career success. He is a willing learner, and always conducts transactions like they were denominated in his local currency back home. Their daily lives are centered on information and communication technologies, as they are constantly seeking arbitrage opportunities to add value “back home.”
The repat’s approach to an infrastructure challenge is to get around it. She does so with the mindset that she was once a “have-not” and this fuels her survival instinct. He will try a new technology if his family and friends recommend it and it meets a price point that satisfies his opportunity cost.
Ironically, the repat is usually hyper-connected and likes to stay “in the know” with glocal activities related to friends and family members that he remains tightly attached to. She utilizes digital technologies that allow her to communicate across multimedia interfaces and maintains a finger on the pulse of the burgeoning societies she left behind. Their new found education and professional experiences offer fresh perspectives and create intellectual waves, with throngs of ideas about what could be. They are often misunderstood. Then they go back to being busy.
She is a local champion, solving a local problem. He has won a healthy number of hackathons and regional startup competitions and received life sized checks that do more for his pride than for his corporate bank account. They wake up everyday and engage a marketplace that is filled with uncertainties. Their addressable markets within Pan African borders are shrouded with infrastructure challenges, lack of seed capital, a dearth of mentors and advisors, and 54 other national policies that govern trade flows.
The African entrepreneur (Afropreneur) needs an international network of expats and repats. She desires the support of a league of well trained female engineers to fuel the fire for product development that she is confident will take her to the next level. He yearns for a backbone of business advisors that will guide his thinking around venture creation, and scaling an idea to the marketplace. They require relevant market data, methodologies on rapid prototyping, seed funding, technical and managerial team members and a shoulder to cry on.
Expat + Repat + Afropreneur = Expert
The expat, repat and entrepreneur are on a wonderful collision course towards the new Africa. An Africa that will seek to support its local entrepreneurial ecosystems by incentivizing networking organizations, training organizations, investment organizations and educational institutions to act as critical partners in the future economic mix. Recent research suggests that diaspora entrepreneurs, including expats and repats, can contribute to economic development by creating businesses and jobs, stimulating innovation, creating social capital across Pan African borders, and channeling political and financial capital toward their countries of origin.
By leveraging the free flow of information from the continent and embracing arbitrage opportunities, diaspora entrepreneurs have an opportunity to join forces with the afropreneurs and become international experts on Africa. This is particularly true for international economic development and policy opportunities that will yield foreign direct investment and technology transfer activities. Diaspora entrepreneurs must establish mechanisms that encourage regular consultations with willing afropreneurs, and their national governments must promote an enabling environment for business owners or investors to transact between their country of origin and their country of settlement.
Subject matter expertise is a critical element of technology venture creation. While much has been said of the reverse brain drain, African governments must place more emphasis on recruiting diaspora experts to fill critical roles that support innovation economies. From Lagos to Lusaka, Accra to Nairobi, repats and expats are creating expert networks through social media but there is a lot more work to be done in formalizing these networks and codifying critical advisory resources that will benefit upcoming generations of afropreneurs.
The Diaspora Agenda
The 2016 edition of President Obama’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) will be held in Silicon Valley in June. A host of African entrepreneurs have been selected from a global pool to sojourn to the “promised land” of innovation, and immerse themselves in global venture activities over three days of knowledge sharing, networking, product pitches and diaspora engagement.
The U.S. State Department will lead the Lions@frica Innovation Tour and present the top five entrepreneurs (a.k.a the Lions) from DEMO Africa 2015 to the Silicon Valley ecosystem. The tour is focused on knowledge sharing with leading Silicon Valley stakeholders and networking opportunities that will yield deeper engagements between the Lions and their target partners. The Lions will participate in a series of events including GES at Stanford, and other curated side events across the Silicon Valley ecosystem.
All of the participating companies will have multiple opportunities to pitch their products, services and technologies to select groups of investors, industry leaders, diaspora groups and expert panels. Founders and executives will socialize and create networking channels that are designed to leverage contacts developed during the visit for future relations.
The African Technology Foundation will lead this effort. Planned activities for the tour are centered around diaspora engagement and building an international diaspora network of mentors and advisors. If successfully executed, these mentors and advisors will voluntarily support the efforts of these afropreneurs as they aspire to inspire a continent of change makers, and seize their positions in Silicon Valley as Africa experts.
About the Author: Stephen Ozoigbo is a serial entrepreneur, investor and advisor to multiple technology startups. He is currently the CEO of the African Technology Foundation, a Silicon Valley corporation that seeks to globalize African technologies by providing access to resources that effectively address and manage the most pressing technological challenges on the continent.