Issue #1: How do you solve a problem like M.A.R.I.A.*
Welcome, Karibu, Bienvenue, Nsanyuse okulaba to the relaunch of my weekly musings on all things business, tech, innovation, economics, science, investing, and startups in Africa.
There seems no more logical place to begin with this endeavor than to offer my thoughts on the epidemic of regressive policy makers and legacy industry seemingly doing their best to hold back innovation in Africa.
Why, between illogical “OTT” *cough* free expression *cough* taxes in places like Uganda, Zambia, and Benin, the Anglo internet shutdown in Cameroon, and the grip of telcos on all things digital across the continent, one could be forgiven for pessimism that anything new will ever be allowed to truly thrive.
But what the mzees on the giving end of these policies clearly don’t understand is that in the age of the internet, life, uh, finds a way.
You see, the internet has removed many of the traditional gatekeepers of business, and thus economic growth. While no one could possibly defend “Big Tech” against their more global domineering impulses, the products they build on the public good that is the internet are not trivial and should never be taken as luxuries or nice to haves.
Rather than “promoting gossip” WhatsApp enables SMEs to deepen relationships with their customers. Far from an economic sink hole, Messenger has become a platform on which to build. Linkedin — with some effort — expands real world networks. Twitter gives a voice. Instagram, while seemingly trivial, has become a very legitimate marketing channel for creative types.
Yet, even saying all this, I’m not giving the digital ruckus it’s full due.
One of my best friends is now two years sober, thanks in no small part to the help of his AA WhatsApp group. Researchers from around the world are better able to collaborate on scientific breakthroughs. Goods move more easily. More people access financial services. And cities grow safer. All on the back of the internet.
While in the thick of it, it may be hard to see, this is the dying gasp of the gate guard being forced into early retirement. Just in the stories shared below, you’ll see examples — A startup taking it upon themselves to self-regulate in a largely unregulated boda (moto taxi) industry. A token enabling internet access, central authorities be damned. Though there will surely be many failures, a number of startups are skipping national utilities and taking mini-grids straight to the consumer. And still, even as telcos keep their death grip (for now) on mobile financial services, there are companies making connecting into “legacy” infrastructure all but plug and play.
I say this not to belittle or marginalize bad policy as meaningless or a victimless crime. Rather to say, these things happen, in the words of Ernest Hemingway, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” — the way of the world for good and ill. Are we in the middle of gradual progress or on the precipice of sudden demise?
So, what’s an entrepreneur to do when faced with this question?
After all, you haven’t needed their permission so far.
*mzees abusing regulation in Africa