Innovation has become a constant topic in Africa, but there has been an emphasis on doing things and less time has been spent thinking about the impact of what’s happening. RUSSELL SOUTHWOOD, CEO of Balancing Act, tries to understand what it means.
Everyone involved in innovation in Africa likes to hear a warming story. As one of the presenters at Fail Fest London put it last week, there’s got to be an image showing a girl looking into a computer screen that puts a golden light on to her eager, upturned face.
Africa’s Innovation agenda has two threads – one donor driven and the other focused on private investment – but as with much else on the continent, each is intertwined with the other.
So whether it’s a donor driven competition or a private investor, there are always parable narratives that capture the spirit of what everyone is hoping to achieve. Whether it’s farmers using phones to get better crop information, a young women buying insurance on her mobile or a young start-up winning a competition prize, these seductive narratives work a bit like the fraudster’s pitch.
I want to be told that innovation is changing lives and Africa is on an upward curve but the danger is that we all end up believing our own propaganda. Because it becomes widely circulated in the media and on social media, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. So what follows is my attempt to try and take apart what might be working from what isn’t.
Start-ups in Africa will tend to work in the larger markets where there are sufficient consumers with mobile phones and enough disposable income for them to get user numbers. Without user numbers, there will not be continuing investment and/or more grant funding. On this basis, start-ups are more likely to be successful in Ghana and Nigeria and Tanzania than they are in Mali, Mozambique or Malawi to take three smaller economies at random.
Start-ups have the same problems that larger companies do in Africa. It’s hard to trade across national boundaries, something that Mo Ibrahim has made one of his constant themes. Many country markets are simply too small but operating in more than one small country is challenging. The absence of common market rules across countries makes the continent a nightmare even for well-endowed multinationals. So it is perhaps hardly surprising that the majority of African start-ups stay in a single country market.
Multi-country roll-out requires capital and some degree of patience and neither of these are in steady supply at the moment. There are a couple of good examples like Africa Internet Group and One Africa Media but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Despite the constant drumbeat of the Africa Rising tune, there is actually a shortage of investors for African start-ups.
There have been several straws in the wind. Kresten Buch’s pioneering accelerator 88 Mph has pulled back from further work as it tries to find ways to get money out of the start-ups it’s already invested in. Overall, the number of exits from the African start-up ecosystem has been tiny. Another incubator operator told me that only one deal was on the table when they when they went looking for investors so it was not a long queue. For the few bigger international investors, Africa remains a tiny part of their investment portfolio.
Mbwana Alliy of the Savannah Fund (an accelerator and seed fund) told me that almost everyone he was able to raise money from had some connection with Africa and that connection was often personal: for example, they had been on holiday to the continent. Investors are not sitting on the West Coast of America saying I wonder what’s happening in Silicon Savannah. Indeed quite a few would probably be hard-pressed to find it on a map.
Worse still, the current international Internet boom will soon reach its bust: there have been at least two of those since I started following events on the continent. Even worse still, the constant currency devaluations in major markets like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa mean that the value of any investment and its revenues erodes along with the currency.
But let’s put the money to one side for a moment and just look at impact. Start-ups have been responsible for creating a new atmosphere of innovation and are changing how things are going to be done. Although it’s not explicitly stated, all of the good energy and ideas generated by African start-ups is supposed to rub off on the wider society. And they have gone a long way to helping change the mood music in some countries about what can be done if you’re young and have an idea.
Also as Bastian Gotter of Spark told me, the start-ups can offer young Nigerians the chance to break out of the need for connections, patronage and bribery. When you’re able to connect directly with a consumer market, you don’t necessarily need those things. However, both of these things – the rub-off effect and breaking away from patronage structures – may be long-term goals that will take more than ten years to achieve.
So let’s look at some of Africa’s bigger problems and see whether start-ups and innovation can bring about change. Nairobi has gone from being a busy city to one where when there are heavy rains, there is complete gridlock. People sleep in their cars overnight. Despite all the new road-building, even when it’s not raining it can take 2-3 hours to get across the city. This is a productivity issue on a massive scale. Has there been innovation from start-ups or Government to tackle the issue?
There is the ever-dependable Twitter feed @Ma3Route but that simply is about negotiating chaos not changing it. There is much that can be said about Uber (and other local Kenyan versions) but they are unlikely to crack Nairobi’s gridlock. I’ve picked on Nairobi but there are a dozen other African cities with problems that are as bad. Car sharing? Public transport? Rail systems? Park and ride? Bicycles? Electric vehicles? You know the answers to these questions.
Energy is a pressing problem of huge scale for the continent. It’s also a productivity problem as every time the power goes off, people can’t work. Furthermore, everything has to be constantly rebooted and breaks down more often as a result. Local diesel fuelled generators are hugely inefficient.
VC4Africa has an admirable accelerator scheme for energy start-ups. Microsoft has put money into a real wind technology innovator Saphon Energy. But against the scale of the task, these are but tiny gnat bites on the elephant’s bottom. Akon Lighting is a fascinating
initiative (see Energy below) but it is barely off the starting blocks. Where are the micro-grids? The energy distribution players? The tech innovators proposing to import Elon Musk’s Powerwall batteries or their less efficient equivalent from China?
Education is a key part of any different future in Africa. Almost everyone who has been through the system – in whichever country on the continent – will tell you that rote learning does not breed people who can analyze and problem solve. Teacher absenteeism remains high. Projects like the late-lamented Mark Bennett’s iSchool in Zambia are heartbreakingly good. There is also a stream of impressive young African innovators teaching STEM skills through things like robotics and coding. But none of this has yet really entered the bloodstream of African education systems.
I don’t want to bludgeon the point but the impact of innovation so far has been largely marginal on anything that Government delivers. Yet each of the three areas above – transport, energy and education – offer enormous opportunities for Innovation.
Making All Voices Count – an initiative to encourage social start-ups to promote transparency and accountability – is a great initiative. But it relies on trying to persuade a deeply unproductive public sector to react to pressure to become more productive for its citizens. Where is the encouragement for the public sector to innovate? To find ways of spending public funds more effectively? Where are local city innovation schemes? The innovation schemes that get local government to promise and deliver?
But this is not just a public sector issue for many of Africa’s larger private sector companies still have not yet got the innovation message. Some banks have taken initiatives to encourage and acquire fintech start-ups but these initiatives are the exception rather than the rule. M-Pesa started the whole thing and they are trundling along behind. Many of the traditional private sector companies in Africa remain stuck in working practices that went out of use elsewhere in the 1960s and 1970s.
Why does productivity matter for Africa? Let’s just take one example that runs like a thread through all the issues raised above. Africa absolutely must have Internet bandwidth that is cheaper than elsewhere globally because it does not yet have the volume of people who can afford it. There will only be a critical mass of users if lower bandwidth costs are achieved.
In terms of data infrastructure, Sub-Saharan Africa is probably one of the most expensive places to operate globally: diesel deliveries for some base stations in one West African country require a boat and hand wheelbarrow for delivery. For data to become cheaper, the mobile companies (or someone else) need to be innovating new ways of delivering bandwidth more cheaply. Bandwidth is the petrol that fuels innovation and without cheap bandwidth innovation in Africa will be stillborn.
As Harambe’s Matthias Reichwald wrote in Issue 70 of Innovation in Africa:” I see enormous potential for the continent to take the lead in designing disruptive systemic solutions inspired by the vast infrastructure vacuums that still exist in most countries. Whether these are innovative ways to deliver health care and education, groundbreaking ideas in agribusiness and transportation or unprecedented ways for more inclusive governance or approaches to produce energy. Africa’s advantage is that it can leapfrog in areas where the West is dealing with heavy legacy structures which impede innovation”.
The challenge now is to turn this analysis into projects that fundamentally change Africa rather than simply provide seductive success parables that give their promoters a warm glow.
* Russell Southwood is CEO of and founder of Smart Monkey TV. Subscribe to Smart Monkey TV on YouTube
Legion gets a pro makeover
Lenovo’s latest Legion gaming laptop, the Y530, pulls out all the stops to deliver a sleek looking computer at a lower price point, writes BRYAN TURNER
Gaming laptops have become synonymous with thick bodies, loud fans, and rainbow lights. Lenovo’s latest gaming laptop is here to change that.
The unit we reviewed housed an Intel Core i7-8750H, with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 GPU. It featured dual storage, one bay fitted with a Samsung 256GB NVMe SSD and the other with a 1TB HDD.
The latest addition to the Legion lineup has become far more professional-looking, compared to the previous generation Y520. This trend is becoming more prevalent in the gaming laptop market and appeals to those who want to use a single device for work and play. Instead of sporting flashy colours, Lenovo has opted for an all-black computer body and a monochromatic, white light scheme.
The laptop features an all-metal body with sharp edges and comes in at just under 24mm thick. Lenovo opted to make the Y530’s screen lid a little shorter than the bottom half of the laptop, which allowed for more goodies to be packed in the unit while still keeping it thin. The lid of the laptop features Legion branding that’s subtly engraved in the metal and aligned to the side. It also features a white light in the O of Legion that glows when the computer is in use.
The extra bit of the laptop body facilitates better cooling. Lenovo has upgraded its Legion fan system from the previous generation. For passive cooling, a type of cooling that relies on the body’s build instead of the fans, it handles regular office use without starting up the fans. A gaming laptop with good passive cooling is rare to find and Lenovo has shown that it can be achieved with a good build.
The internal fans start when gaming, as one would expect. They are about as loud as other gaming laptops, but this won’t be a problem for gamers who use headsets.
Click here to read about the screen quality, and how it performs in-game.
Serious about security? Time to talk ISO 20000
By EDWARD CARBUTT, executive director at Marval Africa
The looming Protection of Personal Information (PoPI) Act in South Africa and the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union (EU) have brought information security to the fore for many organisations. This in addition to the ISO 27001 standard that needs to be adhered to in order to assist the protection of information has caused organisations to scramble and ensure their information security measures are in line with regulatory requirements.
However, few businesses know or realise that if they are already ISO 20000 certified and follow Information Technology Infrastructure Library’s (ITIL) best practices they are effectively positioning themselves with other regulatory standards such as ISO 27001. In doing so, organisations are able to decrease the effort and time taken to adhere to the policies of this security standard.
ISO 20000, ITSM and ITIL – Where does ISO 27001 fit in?
ISO 20000 is the international standard for IT service management (ITSM) and reflects a business’s ability to adhere to best practice guidelines contained within the ITIL frameworks.
ISO 20000 is process-based, it tackles many of the same topics as ISO 27001, such as incident management, problem management, change control and risk management. It’s therefore clear that if security forms part of ITSM’s outcomes, it should already be taken care of… So, why aren’t more businesses looking towards ISO 20000 to assist them in becoming ISO 27001 compliant?
The link to information security compliance
Information security management is a process that runs across the ITIL service life cycle interacting with all other processes in the framework. It is one of the key aspects of the ‘warranty of the service’, managed within the Service Level Agreement (SLA). The focus is ensuring that the quality of services produces the desired business value.
So, how are these standards different?
Even though ISO 20000 and ISO 27001 have many similarities and elements in common, there are still many differences. Organisations should take cognisance that ISO 20000 considers risk as one of the building elements of ITSM, but the standard is still service-based. Conversely, ISO 27001 is completely risk management-based and has risk management at its foundation whereas ISO 20000 encompasses much more
Why ISO 20000?
Organisations should ask themselves how they will derive value from ISO 20000. In Short, the ISO 20000 certification gives ITIL ‘teeth’. ITIL is not prescriptive, it is difficult to maintain momentum without adequate governance controls, however – ISO 20000 is. ITIL does not insist on continual service improvement – ISO 20000 does. In addition, ITIL does not insist on evidence to prove quality and progress – ISO 20000 does. ITIL is not being demanded by business – governance controls, auditability & agility are. This certification verifies an organisation’s ability to deliver ITSM within ITIL standards.
Ensuring ISO 20000 compliance provides peace of mind and shortens the journey to achieving other certifications, such as ISO 27001 compliance.