If they want to have a lasting impact, innovators need to think about their local context and the Pan-African context from the very inception of their projects. Else Silicon Valley might cannibalise all we’re trying to do.
One of the most amazing strengths of African innovation has to do with how innovators are addressing their local context. They see local problems and come up with local solutions, often bringing technology in as the base from which to develop and provide the solution. In my book Disrupting Africa: The Rise and Rise of African Innovation, I speak of over a dozen innovators who have done just this and who have been quite successful at it. Part of the argument in my book was to showcase how African innovation looks.
Part of the argument in my book was to showcase how African innovation looks different to, say, innovation in Japan – which focuses a great deal on robotics and sci-fi like technology – and for this reason, African innovation needs to be taken on by its own merits. This is why we need to develop our own innovation index, rather than relying purely on outside authorities on the subject. Our innovation needs to be rated according to our own context and the home-grown solutions our innovators provide.
But there is a flip-side to this coin. In my last few articles here at CNBC, I’ve been exploring how the “big boys” of Silicon Valley have a keen eye on our continent, and when they come in they create disruption in many of our stable industries. Many times this disruption is unforeseen. For example, I’ve shown how Uber disrupts the car manufacturing industry more than the taxi industry (because if Uber is cheaper to use than buying a car, and it can be if you split fees or car pool, fewer people buy cars).
I also showed how Facebook could potentially pull the rug from under our telecommunications industries as they look to provide free satellite Internet access. Another example has been Amazon, which is poised to disrupt the remittance industry (in that case, the powers at Amazon may not have even seen this themselves, although I highly doubt that). The key point in all this is to show that these Silicon Valley innovators know how to think about local solutions that can also work in a Pan-African context. You notice how each changes the way it does its marketing or payments and adjusts its service with regards to local needs (seen that you can pay cash on Uber now?)
In order to compete with Silicon Valley, our innovators need to be thinking Pan-African from day one. Many of our home-grown innovations can actually work outside of their immediate context. I’ve spoken about South African-based Lifestock Wealth before. Founded by Ntuthuko Shezi, Livestock Wealth gives you the opportunity to invest in cows through its app. The company manages two farms. You invest in the cattle while they manage the cattle for you. It’s obviously an African solution, right? It makes much more sense to most Africans than other forms of investment. You can’t export that to most of America. But you can definitely export that to most of Africa. I would also argue that there may even be other places in the world that you can export it to as well. In fact, I bet there are.
The company manages two farms. You invest in the cattle while they manage the cattle for you. It’s obviously an African solution, right? It makes much more sense to most Africans than other forms of investment. You can’t export that to most of America. But you can definitely export that to most of Africa. I would also argue that there may even be other places in the world that you can export it to as well. In fact, I bet there are.
Livestock Wealth could easily go Pan-African and Shezi and his team ought to be thinking about that from day one. Here are three of our current and most successful innovators who already show this.
IrokoTV is a great example of an innovation that clearly had a Pan-African view in mind from its inception. IrokoTV surely competes against the likes of Showmax, Netflix, and even DStv. But when Showmax and Netflix arrived on our continent, Njoku didn’t seem to break into much of a sweat. He knows he has the core market that matters: Nollywood viewers. These viewers are all over Africa and throughout the world in the African diaspora. He captured an African need so well that IrokoTV is key in growing the Nollywood market – creating new markets for it where there may not have been before. So when the likes of Showmax come in they have to either partner with him or essentially just aim for taking second-place on the continent. That’s the kind of approach we need from our home-grown innovators.
Fred Swaniker, who founded African Leadership Academy, is on a mission to create the next generation of African leaders. He is not just looking at what’s going on now but is thinking about what things will look like in 50 years time. He has created infrastructure that can compete with Ivy League type of institutions and invests heavily in African youth to prepare them for the future. His vision is exactly what I think our innovators ought to be keeping in mind: create the next generation, create the future.
Thakkar’s aim is to take African innovation to Silicon Valley rather than have Silicon Valley come here. Underneath his core vision with the Pan-African Mara Group is to make Africa a world-wide, tangible player in just about every market. Some people joke that Mara Group is the African version of Virgin. It’s not far off. But the vision is to soon see the joke work the other way – that Virgin is simply the American version of Mara. I think this is an important distinction that we have to think about; it shows us how we even need to change our language about these things.
Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “I’ve heard about these three guys, and I’m pretty tired of hearing about them by now. Is there nothing new?” Well, that’s the point. We have to keep repeating the same people because actually we don’t have enough innovators thinking like them. See it as a challenge. We need our innovators to elevate their thinking and their view of innovation, and think home-grown and Pan-African at the same time, all the time.
In my view, our innovators need to do this if they want to have a lasting impact. Silicon Valley saw this a long time ago. It’s time we do the same – before Silicon Valley scoops up our industries for themselves. We’re poised, right now, to do some amazing things – but we have to be bold and big about it.