Forget bootstraps, Africa is a continent dragging itself up by its code strings to become a global player – but it needs more software developers, writes BRETT PARKER, SAP Africa Managing Director.
Over the last year, all eyes have been on Africa’s technology sector. And for a very good reason: infrastructure growth is booming. Between 2010 and 2016, seven new undersea cables brought fast data connections to the continent, with two more already under development. Meanwhile, mobile providers have invested $13.6billion into getting 500,000,000 Africans online by 2020.
But as necessary as infrastructure investment is, it alone won’t take African business global. So what technological development or product has the potential to make African businesses global players?
Tech sector already outperforms expectations
A common misconception is that raw materials are the big African growth story of the last decade. But according to research by Freshfields, since 2004 Africa’s technology companies have delivered 19% annualised returns, compared to just 11% in commodities.
A clue to why the African tech sector is growing can be found in the East African mobile payments industry. In most of the world, mobile payments is a niche sector, because consumers have many other convenient ways to pay –bank cards, credit cards and banking transfers, for instance.
But in Sub-Saharan Africa, only 34% of people have a bank account. This used to be a significant barrier to any transaction that wasn’t small-scale or local. Or, in plain English, it was a huge inconvenience.
Change began in 2007, when local telco Safaricom teamed up with Vodafone to develop the mobile-payment system M-Pesa. Its creators expected M-Pesa to have 250,000 customers by the end of its third year. After just two years it already had over two million customers.
By 2014, the East African mobile-payments market was worth US$61 billion. There were 41 new African mobile-payment start-ups. A huge 80% of all the world’s mobile payments were African. And global players were looking to Africa to see what lessons they could learn.
So is mobile-payment the technology that could take African business global? There’s clearly huge potential for the industry to grow and act as an enabler for other sectors: in particular African SMEs and sole traders, who need a means of making and accepting online transactions. But for a fundamental transformation to take place, it needs to be about more than just one industry.
Overcoming barriers through technology
Another brake on the globalisation of African business is the tariff and non-tariff barriers that inhibit the growth of a single African market. This is something that African businesses need to change if they are to grow to the point of being ready to operate on a global scale.
Here again, signs are positive. For instance, the NGO, TradeMark East Africa, worked with the Ugandan government to develop an online reporting system for non-tariff barriers (NTBs) to trade.
Exporters in East Africa can now report NTBs online or via SMS, resulting in a 20% reduction in the time taken to move goods around the region. This is expected to lead to increased trade, lower costs and higher regional GDP.
At the same time, the adoption of online revenue, legal and other government systems is helping African countries cut red-tape and increase the speed at which businesses can operate. In Addis Ababa, for instance, tax assessments can now be made online: giving taxpayers access to faster decisions, with less form filling.
Without doubt, institutional barriers to trade and growth need to be broken down, if African business is to go global. But technology is only one part of the solution. Much more depends on political will and clout.
The foundation of any technological revolution
To take on the world, African business will need investment in technological infrastructure. It will need break-out technologies that allow it to disrupt and then likely lead existing global markets. And it will need technology solutions to problems that currently hold it back. But there is something more fundamental than all of these factors:
Africa is the world’s youngest continent. This will give it a demographic dividend, just as the last generation of economic tigers is beginning to age. But only 1% of the 11 million African young people who come of age every year have even basic software coding skills. This is a waste of talent and a barrier to growth. Without basic STEMS skills, let alone coding knowledge, African entrepreneurs won’t be able to grow their businesses to the point of being ready to compete on the global stage.
In April 2016, Africa Internet Group (AIG) – the holding company for a range of online businesses – was valued at US$1 billion, making it the first ‘African tech unicorn’. AIG’s success is not a one-off. M-Pesa in Kenya, the mobile advertising platform Twinpine in Nigeria, and South Africa’s content-distribution service 8bit – among many other successes – prove that.
“If it works in Africa, it’ll work anywhere”, jokes Juliana Rotich, the co-founder of BRCK, a Kenyan-made Wi-Fi hotspot and battery designed for use in the field. And there are hundreds of African technology companies with innovative ideas, ready to prove her right. But in order to do it, they need access to a skilled, digital workforce.
The technology that will take African business global? As AIG and M-Pesa have shown, it’s the software developer’s kit, in the hands of an African programmer and entrepreneur who’s been trained to use it. The time to start training the next generation of African programmers is now.
IoT’s answer for Africa
IoT and digitization enables us to efficiently, proactively and predictively address the sustainability challenges that are faced globally and on the African continent, RESHAAD SHA, CEO of Liquid Telecom.
With Africa’s population set to increase from around 1.3-billion in 2018 to 1.7-billion in 2030, both challenges and opportunities are presented with regards managing issues including food production and security pose as well the utilization of limited natural resources in a sustainable manner.
Water scarcity and quality for example are realities that negatively impact health, food production and security. Population growth rates and climatic changes place an exponential demand on this scarce and dwindling resource. These are just some of the sustainability challenges facing not just the African continent, but other developing nations and the world as a whole. In addition to this, the demand for the delivery of basic services as healthcare and sanitation also increases.
Against this background of African population growth lies the grim projection that Africa will account for more than 50% of child deaths (under 5) by 2030, while each day, nearly 1000 children die owing to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrheal diseases according to the UNICEF 2017 trends in child mortality report. It’s an alarming fact, given that while some 2.6-billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources since 1990, 663-million people still do not have access.
The department of Water Affairs and Forestry estimate that the agricultural sector accounts for more than 50% of water use in South Africa and experience water losses of between 30 and 40 per cent. Further, the department states that around 35% of irrigation system losses, often nutrient enriched and containing herbicides, pesticides, and other pollutants, return to rivers. These are just some of the ways in which reactive, inefficient, and manually driven processes have limited us in responding in an impactful manner and timeously mitigating these risks
It is for these reasons and other socio economic and environmental concerns that the United Nations has established its Sustainable Development Goals strategy, addressing the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, and environmental degradation.
We need to look at smarter ways that leverage technology in order to addressing these challenges. The situation requires a radical response that delivers a proactive, predictive and data driven approach to addressing these issues with exponentially growing levels of speed and impact.
The IoT ecosystem, comprising of sensors, connectivity, data analytics and workflow automation platforms, and applications are at the core of acquiring, analyzing and harnessing the insights that can be integrated into agriculture, service delivery, health and resource management processer – IoT is at the core of a digitization
One such sector which has benefited immensely from technology is in agriculture pest control, with the implementation of AI and IoT by Spanish startup AgroPestAlert. The innovation makes use of “smart” traps that capture insects and analyse their wing beats to identify their species and even their sex. Placed throughout the fields, the traps communicate with the system to predict an imminent invasion. The system will send alerts to phones, tablets and computers and use an easy-to-understand visual tool to cue farmers instantly.
Around 200-million Africans use approximately 1-million manual pumps across the continent to manually access clean drinking water. IoT applications have been utilised in assuring the delivery of water through manual these pumps, According to estimates, at least one-third of those pumps will break down at least once in its lifecycle, and up to 70% will break in the second year of operation. The impact of not having access to clean drinking water is dehydration or water borne pandemics.
In the Kenyan Region of Kyusoa, Oxford University began a proof of concept project in 2013, which made use of motion sensors) to capture the movements of the pumps’ handle which was transmitted and analysed in real time. A decision support system based on real data was used to predict pump malfunctions, allowing for a better planning and shortening the time needed to repair broken pumps, or avoiding malfunctions altogether, directly improving the access to clean drinking water for the rural population.
Liquid Telecom realise that the future of sustainability lies in technology and innovations such as IoT. We provide high speed fiber connectivity to interconnect as well as access platforms to build IoT solutions, in addition to access to Microsoft Azure suite of platforms for analytics and algorithm driven based processing and execution. Our Pan African network enables collaboration and cross border innovation and learning, fast well as the capability to efficiently scale out these solutions on Africa’s Liquid Cloud.
Africa start-up ecosystem can drive blockchain
Through nurturing and technical support, Africa’s tech start-up ecosystem can be a major driver of Blockchain-based innovation says BEN ROBERTS, Liquid Telecom’s Group Chief Technology and Innovation Officer.
African communities have always come-up with inventive solutions to local problems. Take Somalia as an example. The country is said to have one of the largest diaspora populations in the world. It has few commercial banks and relations with international creditors remain frozen due to debts incurred in the late 1980s.
So its population uses Hawala; an informal value transfer system based on the performance and honour of a large network of money brokers. For example, it would mean a Somali based in the US would give money to a local branch agent, where it is sent to a central country clearing house, then onto a clearing house based in another country (typically somewhere in the Middle East). From there it goes to a Somali agent, before the funds are finally collected by an individual in Somalia.
Much like blockchain, the Hawala system is built on trust – but that’s where any similarities end. In fact, cryptocurrencies – many of which are blockchain-powered – may eventually become a replacement for Hawala and other existing forms of international remittances. Cryptocurrencies can enable people to exchange currency online without any middleman – even banks.
International remittance is one of many compelling use cases for blockchain. The technology’s ability to digitise trust makes it a unique fit for many African countries, particularly those where processes and supply chains remain poorly designed and susceptible to corruption.
At Liquid Telecom, we’re excited about the potential for blockchain technology across the region. Along with other emerging technologies, we recognise this as another major new digital opportunity for businesses that utilises our network infrastructure and services. The rise of blockchain innovation will rely on the skills and talent of the region’s software developers, who themselves rely on a high-speed internet connection and access to cloud-based tools. Our fibre footprint – which will soon stretch all the way from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt – is providing the foundations for digital innovation, while our partnership with Microsoft is enabling access to the cloud-based services and tools needed to create digital solutions for local problems.
Last year, with support from Microsoft, we set-up our Go Cloud initiative, which is helping to provide the region’s start-up communities with technical support, training and access to software. Using Azure Cloud, start-ups can cut development time and experiment easily with modular, preconfigured networks and infrastructure, enabling them to iterate and validate blockchain scenarios quickly by using built-in connections to Azure.
We’re starting to see the first crop of African start-ups experimenting with blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Take Rwandan start-up Uplus, which is utilising blockchain to secure all transactions on its digital crowdfunding platform. The technology also allows the platform to take contributions from any country and covert it to the local currency.
A lot of existing applications in Africa tend to fall short when it comes to user experience, and blockchain could certainly help address some of these issues – be it by creating a new trusted way to make payments or verify user identification. During this early stage of blockchain experimentation and proof of concept, it will be crucial for start-ups and businesses to develop solutions that are relevant for African communities. Without that, the technology won’t gather momentum.
Regulation can nurture or constrict the technology and will have a role to play in being a ‘make or break’ for blockchain. Living in Kenya, I’m proud to see how proactive the government has been in seizing the blockchain opportunity. The creation by the President of a taskforce earlier this year dedicated to blockchain – led by the former permanent secretary for Ministry of Information and Communications, Dr. Bitange Ndemo (see page 7) – shows how committed the country is to being a leader in emerging technologies. As more African countries follow Kenya’s lead, blockchain should hopefully find itself resonating more powerfully with local businesses and consumers.