Op-Ed: Africa is rising depending where you look

PUBLISHED: Fri, 25 Nov 2016 20:43:36 GMT
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In the last three years or so, it’s become almost popular amongst commentators to disparage the African Rising narrative in some way. At a TEDx talk in London not too long ago, Tanzanian billionaire and founder of the Infotech Investment Group, Ali Mufuruki flat out said “Africa is not rising.” He went on to highlight several industries and challenges where he says there has not only been stagnation, but regression. They were mostly the usual suspects – electricity, technology, education, amongst others. “We have embraced that narrative without questioning it,” he says, “and I think that’s why we are where we are.”

In a Sunday Times opinion piece, Jabulani Sikhakhane critiques the narrative too, highlighting the current mood: “Narratives about Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth have swung, during the past four decades, between two extremes: pessimism and exuberance. After much exuberance about Africa’s strong growth over the past two decades, albeit driven by a few countries, the tide is turning back to despair.”

My work in researching, cataloguing, and writing about innovation, as well as connecting innovators together, has made me think differently to the two extremes Sikhakhane highlights above. I understand the general sentiment. We want to be realistic. It’s okay to dream, but we need to also just face the facts. But I believe wecanjustify the narrative when we do a few things, such as challenge present-day thinking around concepts such as “development” and a “developed nation” (remember, our development doesn’t have to look like the West’s history) and look at our successes with an open mind. I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere, including on CNBC Africa, and have touched on it in my bookDisrupting Africa: The Rise and Rise of African Innovation. A future book will go into more detail. But what I want to do here is simply speak about three areas of innovation, with examples, where Africa Rising is getting meat on the bones. In writing this article, I decided to actually sit with innovators and businesses actually doing something on the continent that supports the Africa Rising narrative. These showcase something important:we are actually doing it.

Growing a New Generation

Fred Swaniker is a Ghanaian serial entrepreneur and leadership development expert. He has launched five organisations that aim at developing leaders, primarily in Africa. Swaniker has an understanding of an emerging problem: that according to the UN’s “World Population Prospects” report last year, by about 2030 and beyond, Africa will have the largest working population in the world. In fact, 40 per cent of the working population globally will be based in or from Africa. The problem is that this working population, at the moment, is likely to be more of a liability than an asset.

But we can change that. The African Leadership Academy (ALA), located just outside Johannesburg, has already created about 1,000 leaders at the time of writing. Swaniker also launched the African Leadership University (ALU) having a vision to roll out 25 universities across the continent with a mandate to create 3 million ethical and entrepreneurial leaders by 2060. These are people who understand what’s needed for change, know how to work with people, have a great grasp of history and context, hope for the future, and possess creative chops to get us there. See, Swaniker’s vision is bigger than just a university, as important as that is. He knows that if you can create true leaders – not people with just a degree in management, or people who know how to play politics – you can transform the continent. He has the long-term in mind. Swaniker’s challenge to each of these leaders, and what they train them to do, is create 330 jobs for others. Think about how this can scale up, with just the right kind of investment.

That’s Africa Rising – a new generation with a different sense of their own abilities and the potential of our people.

The last mile of logistics in Africa

Rural Africa is a challenge when it comes to solving the “last mile” problem – the movement of goods from the supply depot to the consumer’s home, or wherever the consumer may be. Amazon has actually solved this in the Western world with the deployment of drone technology. In fact, Amazon’s models, including its use of drone technology, open up questions we seem to be ignoring and solutions we’re not exploring. Perhaps most of us just don’t know what is actually happening on the ground. Or perhaps it’s because Amazon is in the retail space that we don’t connect the dots as to how what it is doing is disrupting so many aspects of so many other industries, and disrupting many of our regulations. Those who live in the cities can literally buy almost anything from Amazon, including certain kinds of medication, and have it delivered to their home, regardless of local regulations.

Drone technology brings all this to practically anyone, anywhere. It wasn’t long ago that this kind of tech seemed to just be a sci-fi dream. But now it’s already happening. And it’s actually already happening in Africa. UNICEF has piloted a drone project in Malawi to deliver medical supplies and also pick up blood samples. The drone speaks to the phone of health workers in a village who are able to send the drone off to the right location with a swipe of the screen, and it uses their phone’s GPS signal to find them. The drones are designed to carry up to 1kg of goods. Tanzania and Ghana, I have on good report, are also piloting drone projects that will carry off birth registration forms from villages to the nearest Home Affairs.

In speaking to Christopher Fabian, an ‘adopted’ African and the brainchild behind this innovative concept at the UNICEF, I was hugely impressed by his vision and optimism about the continent. Even more impressive, is that he’s managed to implement such a model in UNICEF. I find UNICEF’s involvement interesting – and surely private equity should be taking notice. In fact, UNICEF is changing its approach as it actually wants business to get involved. They want this commercialised, because there is an understanding that this approach will create much more innovation, freedom, investment, and opportunity.

If UNICEF can do this, why can’t we do it? Everything we need is already there – it’s not like we need to reinvent any new technology. Why can’t any of our home-grown companies just tweak things to work for us? This is something we really should explore.

Challenging the traditional views of innovation

Ashish Thakkar, Founder of the Mara Group and well-known global entrepreneur, is the kind of guy who likes to get involved in just about everything, and he serves as an example of a privately-owned business looking to bring ecommerce into Africa in a new, refreshing way. Online shopping may be only growing here in the cities, but if the last-mile problem can be solved for rural Africa, we have a game changer.

What interests me is how Thakkar also wants to challenge traditional views of innovation and progress. In another article I wrote for CNBC Africa, I outlined how Western definitions and measurement tools for progress are limited and ineffective in telling the real story. If you assume innovation in Africa must look like innovation in Japan, then obviously you’re going to draw faulty conclusions. But this is precisely what global indexes like the Bloomberg Innovation Index do. From my work and research about innovators in Africa, my argument is there is a ton of work to be done around perceptions.

Thakkar has come to similar conclusions, and he will soon be launching his own innovation index that will work off different kinds of presuppositions. This will be a fantastic addition to the global conversation, creating competition in how these things are measured, which will challenge Western modes of thinking not only in how Africa really looks on the ground but how Africa should actually develop. I can only think this will be ground-breaking for how we view ourselves as well. It’s about time that we develop methodologies that will take what we know about our local contexts into the equation.

Private humanitarianism

A great example of the power of humanitarian causes partnering with commercial projects, which is what UNICEF is looking for, comes in the form of one of my favourite companies, MKOPA Solar, which is successfully and profitably creating solutions in the low-cost home electricity field for the poor. Based in Kenya and launched in 2012, it took just four years for the company to bring its ‘pay-as-you-go’ model to 300,000 homes in East Africa by the beginning of 2016. It connects about 500 homes a day. Along with this, it had sold 40,000 home-improvement and technology products by January 2016, such as energy-saving stoves.

I recently asked one of the founders, Chad Larson to describe to me where it is as a business. In the beginning, Chad said, “You move from an idea to scaling it, and then to other countries, and you’ll take all the funding you can get. But now as a company we’re selective of who we work with. We want to partner strategically.” When a company has matured to that degree, you know they’re starting to function on a different level. Banks are now starting to call them looking for an opportunity to invest.

The point here is to show how a home-grown Kenyan company has innovated to such a degree that it has created a new, growing market, continues to invent unique products, and is now starting to cherry-pick who it is it wants to work with. This is not just innovation, it’s maturity.

That, for me, is how the Africa Rising narrative must evolve. We need to think strategically. We need to think long-term. We need to partner in different ways. We ought to be discussing private investment. And we need to realise one very important philosophical point:there are plenty of examples of those already doing it.The problem is we’re just not talking enough about our successes that are actually changing the narrative. This narrative has wings, and it’s taking off.

* Nnamdi Oranye is author of “Disrupting Africa: The Rise and Rise of African Innovation”

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