It’s time for both the diaspora and Africans on the continent to rethink how we work together.
By Nnamdi Oranye
When I travel abroad, I often have meetings with Africans who are now living and working outside of the continent. As fellow Africans, we end up chatting about where we are from and they reminisce about the countries they have left.
When they learn about my work, and usually why I’m travelling, it always leads us to the same point. They are curious about development in Africa and how they can participate in it. Usually, they are unaware of how successful African innovation and technology is, and who the key players are. They would’ve heard about Google and Bill Gates but not about their fellow Africans who are achieving great success. These encounters confirm the relatively dormant role the African diaspora play in Africa’s innovation development.
That’s why I want to present an opportunity for the African diaspora to participate in Africa’s growth, whether or not they return to the continent.
More needs to be done to connect what is happening in Africa with those that have left it. In turn, those that are inactive in the African diaspora need to be connected to their active counterparts. It seems incongruous that noteworthy success stories in Africa are unknown to the African diaspora. Why are many of the diaspora so disengaged from what is already happening in their homeland? If Mark Zuckerberg is investing 24 million US dollars into Andela (a Lagos-based software engineering start-up), then he must think Africa is worth something.
As the spotlight refocuses, and presents African tech in the correct light, it’s my hope – and the hope of many others – to see both the historical and contemporary African diaspora moving beyond simply sending remittance home. The diaspora has skill sets and learned expertise to contribute significantly. Moreso, the diaspora can also invest financially. All this can bring tremendous momentum to what it is we’re doing here.
I think that we haven’t properly tapped into this, especially in light of today’s technological innovations. You don’t need to be based in Africa to contribute code or strategy or even just thought-leadership. The diaspora can contribute in ways we’re not imagining yet. I speak about this in great detail in my new book, “Taking on Silicon Valley: How Africa’s Innovators Will Shape Its Future.” There is much here we need to rethink and action.
It may surprise you to learn that the problems Africa faces provide an optimal breeding ground for innovative technology, and realistic investment. Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and even Ethiopia, have sustained tech industries for enough time to prove that African tech is worth investing in. Within its continental boundaries, Africa is not an oversaturated market. The narratives coming out of Africa need to entice and incentivise the role the diaspora have to play.
What’s imperative to all this is talking about our innovators and showcasing our successes. One such example is Kaakpema “KP” Yelpaala, a Ghanaian entrepreneur who now resides in Silicon Valley. He founded access.mobile in Uganda, which is a digital health company that provides affordable, and practical, tech solutions to the healthcare sector. KP was educated in the United States and graduated from both Brown and Yale universities.
His Ivy League education would’ve been advantageous in any field, but he chose to recognise the unique position he had as part of the African diaspora and invested in Africa. Utilising his network of influential colleagues and having access to funding, KP was able to identify the investment potential of a start-up in Uganda. Although access.mobile runs out of Uganda, he still lives in Silicon Valley.
The success of access.mobile is that it is now developing into other countries besides Uganda, and the technology it has developed is sought after for other emerging markets. This is the role the African diaspora can play in Africa, yet why do we find the media so silent about KP and the role he is playing? Why are we not talking more about this?
KP and access.mobile are not an isolated example. Neither is the methodology here the only approach. Starting a business is not the only way to invest in African tech. If you look at the spectrum of Africans who are involved with development in Africa, it is very impressive. Surely there are many opportunities the African diaspora can tap into?
In an interview with Almaz Negash (founder of the African Diaspora Network) on The Global Start-up Movement Podcast, Andrew Berkowitz asked her: “What is the best way for a country to go about engaging with their diaspora?” Negash (who is from Eritrea but resides in Silicon Valley) explained that for the African context, there is a problem of perception.
The African diaspora has an over romanticised view of Africa and, therefore, there is no urgency or compulsion to take active steps to join in its development. She suggests that the best way for Africa to engage with its diaspora is to expose them to the realities of what is taking place.
I would extend this thought and say that we need to present the correct perspective of African innovation in Africa. We need to platform who those in the African diaspora are that have joined in Africa’s development. We need to platform those who are doing an amazing job on the ground here in Africa. Exposing the realities of Africa to the diaspora includes emphasising the way in which Africa is succeeding, against all odds. This is not blind optimism but is based on the extensive collective of African innovation that we have.
If we look at how KP has changed a traditionally stagnant sector in Africa through access.mobile, in a way that policy and infrastructure have not allowed, it demonstrates the unique influence the African diaspora have. In the case of M-PESA, a more overt example, it too superseded a sector that for decades had been unmovable. As it now enters the European market, it is no longer a tool that was just good for Africa, it changes the way innovation is viewed on the continent.
The benefit at this juncture in time is the growing optimism there is in African innovation. The African diaspora have an opportunity to utilise their influence because there is already evidence it is working.