Be smart — be like Korea — a zero to hero story…

Extremely tired, yet incredibly inspired and most of all determined to make a change — I am on my way back home from the African Development Bank Meetings ( and KOAFEC 2018 in Busan, South Korea, where I spoke on two panels focused on smart infrastructure, innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa.

AfDB 2018 — Panel on Innovation & Entrepreneurship — Panelists include Patrick Vermeulen, Professor and Academic Director, Radboud University, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Board Chair, Gavi, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, Hanan Morsy, Director, Macroeconomic Forecasting and Research, AfDB, Nkemdilim Uwaje Begho, CEO, Future Software Resources Ltd., Nigeria, Fahad Awadh, Founder, YYTZ Agro-Processing, Tanzania

South Korea is one of my favourite places in the world, not because of the beautiful sights and sounds or the amazing shopping in Seoul, but because of the way that technology has been integrated into every day life so naturally and seamlessly. I’ve been to a lot of countries, yet Korea’s digitalization and technology integration is like no other. Smart infrastructure surrounds you, technology adoption is high, IoT (Internet of Things) and AI (Artificial Intelligence) are second nature and soon 5G technology which is 4x faster than 4G with download speeds of 20GB per second (yes I used GB and per second in the same sentence) won’t just be fiction anymore. This is where innovation is being driven, this is where cutting edge technology is developed, this is heaven for a tech geek like me.

AfDB 2018 — Panel on Innovation & Entrepreneurship — Panelists include Patrick Vermeulen, Professor and Academic Director, Radboud University, Hanan Morsy, Director, Macroeconomic Forecasting and Research, AfDB, Nkemdilim Uwaje Begho, CEO, Future Software Resources Ltd., Nigeria, Fahad Awadh, Founder, YYTZ Agro-Processing, Tanzania

They say the way you do one thing, is the way you do everything — this statement has been echoing in my mind over and over again and forms the foundation of the Korean success story and at the same time tells me why Africa is where it is.

For some it may seem like Korea became such a successful nation out of the blue, to others it may seem like they have always been successful.

So let’s look at some facts:

1. Korea was the third poorest nation in 1959 — yup around the same time many African Nations including Nigeria and Ghana got Independence, they were struggling with a country destroyed by the war, a GDP per capital of $81. Today they have a GDP per capita of $29,743.50 — now that is what I call real transformation and wealth building.

2. Although some Korean brands like Kia, Samsung and LG already existed in 1959, they were nowhere near global brands. Today these brands and a myriad of others have become global household names and we eagerly consume in Nigeria and the rest of Africa because they stand for quality, affordability and innovation. Samsung sells 42,000 phones globally every hour.

3. There was no Internet in 1959, yet today they not only have the fastest Internet in the world, also out of the 19 million households in Korea 99.2% of them have internet access via optical LAN, xDSL, cable modem, mobile or otherwise, according to a government survey last year. This puts Korea way ahead of the USA and Europe.

4. Seoul, a city that was destroyed in the war, now makes New York look like child’s play. It’s smart infrastructure and amazing city planning shows modern life at it’s best, infused with small oasis of tranquility, culture and history spread all over the city in forms of heritage sites, parks and mini forests.

5. From a nation that did not export anything, today South Korea exports 282 products with revealed comparative advantage to the entire world, making it the 5th largest export economy in the world. In 2016, South Korea exported $1.23T and imported $929B, resulting in a positive trade balance of $297B.

To me it looks like the odds were against Korea on so many levels, yet they still succeeded — so what’s our excuse?

Let’s look at what Korea’s critical success factors are:

1. Prioritization of Education as a national strategy:

Korea not only invested in education, but made it the backbone of the country’s development and has not changed this path. Globally countries are looking at Korea’s educational system as all it does is churn out excellence — it doesn’t know failure.

2. The mindset of champions:

In Korea the statement that your mindset is everything is clearly demonstrated by its citizens every day. They all have an attitude of gratitude, fully imbibe the spirit of excellence, they are consistent, persistent and extremely diligent in everything they do and their efficiency and attention to detail makes German’s look sloppy. This may sound cliche, but it’s not, it’s Korea’s distinct national character that drives it’s success on a day to day basis.

3. A Government with a clear focus:

Not only is the national agenda independent of who is president, but also clearly defined by laws and policies that drive the strategic transformation. The spirit of excellence is imbibed by all citizens including the public sector, which is key to national development. They created 7 five year plans that all stacked on each other and were implemented with diligence and determination between 1962 and 1996.

4. Heavy investments in R&D

With some of the globally best R&D facilities, technology coming out of Korea is light years ahead and the rest of the world is continually playing catch up. Innovation is not only focused on Korea’s market, but is driven by every new market they enter — some examples are the anti mosquito and inverter ACs that LG specifically developed for the African market. Korean companies are driven by an ecosystem of continuous innovation and creativity.

5. Focused transformation into a Knowledge Economy

Korea’s leadership focused on a strategic modification of the Economic Structure — Away from agriculture and towards manufacturing and service industries. Employment Share in Agriculture, Forestry & Fish went from 63% to 7% and in Mining & Manufacturing from 8.7% to 16.4%.

So let’s be smart, let’s be like Korea.

Let’s make sure that we create a unique model that works specifically within our constraints and turns our lack of infrastructure into a massive opportunity to create the Africa of our dreams through building smart infrastructure and thoroughly embracing innovation and digitalisation.

Here’s what we need to do to take advantage of the 4th industrial revolution and become a force to be reckoned with when it comes to technology?

Focus: African Governments must adopt an inclusive, strategic & intentional ICT focused mindset.

Driving Force: African countries must create a Ministry for Digitalization, Innovation & Technology that drives a long-term digitalization and transformation plan that spans across all industry verticals, educational as well as social sectors.

Policies: African countries must create and adopt technology specific policies that accelerate economic development.

Investment: We must be clear that long term and focused investments are needed and that Smart Infrastructure cannot be built on financial aid.

Ownership: We MUST own our most critical infrastructure and content. Digital colonialisation is not just a buzz-word, but will become reality for African nations that do not understand the importance of owning their own data and infrastructure.

Partnerships: We must build solid partnerships with experts in smart infrastructure. My bet is on the Koreans, for they not only understand the technology, but also understand transformation and growth.

Inclusive Stakeholder Engagement: It is key to engage & carry along stakeholders — techpreneurs, start-ups, futurists, digital natives, private sector, public sector, not-for profit sector, aid organizations, citizens etc.

R&D: Heavy investments into R&D facilities and sustainable R&D programs, as well as the establishment of Knowledge Banks is critical.

Capacity Development: We MUST reverse brain drain & continuously build our own capacity to implement, maintain, manage and operate our smart infrastructure to ensure full ownership and control. Future Schools & Technology Innovation Hubs are critical.

Gender Inclusive Technology: This is critical as women form the majority of Africa’s population and need to play a significant role in re-tooling of the continent and developing its technology.

Support Startups and Scaleups: Africa has millions of entrepreneurs who are building the next global companies. In order to ensure that they keep innovating and are able to compete on a pan-African and even global scale we must invest in them and support their growth at every stage. Specific focus must be given to techpreneurs and technology driven ventures.

KOAFEC 2018 Panel — Moderator Mr. Kyung-Wook Hur 
Senior Advisor to Bae, Kim& Lee LLC; Former Ambassador of Korea to the OECD, Pamelists — Mr. Amadou Hott Vice-President, Power, Energy, Climate and Green Growth, AFDB, Ms. Nkemdilim Uwaje Begho CEO, Future Software Resources Nigeria, Mr. John Tanui Chief Executive Officer, Konza Technopolis Development Authority, Kenya, Mr. Sergio Pimenta Vice President for Africa & MENA International Finance Corporation, Mr. Mark Hyung-Joon Kim Executive Vice President, Korea Telecom, Mr. Young-hoon Chang Executive Director, EDCF Group, The Export-Import Bank of Korea

I dream of an Africa that is fully digitalized and able to create, manage and maintain it’s own technology and smart infrastructure. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and work on policies, solution frameworks that will ensure we are not left behind.

We have ALOT of work to do as individual nations and as a continent, but looking at Korea’s transformation, we know that impossible is nothing. Watch this space — I will be writing some follow up posts focused on solutions and how best to implement them.

Join the conversation and drop me some comments below :-) Africa can be great, but it will take Africans to make it great! Let’s talk.