The technological leap has been one of the big themes of the African economic history for the past 10 years. Today, it represents a huge transformative potential insofar as infrastructure development and socio-economic challenges are concerned.
Africa has, indeed, taken the bull by the horns in embracing mobile technology, demonstrating leadership in innovation in the mobile ecosystem. Mobile penetration across the continent is high at 60%, and more than 50% of those users have access to the internet. Africans develop services and apps for the continent, providing information on market prices, weather, health and even good farming practice. Drones are becoming more widely available with prices starting as low as $300. They can help farmers with mapping their land, with construction and mining, even market research. Parts of Africa have already come a long way in developing mobile money payment systems that give the unbanked millions a chance to move into the formal economy.
We will likely see transformations that touch the fundamental aspects of our lives in ways we cannot yet expect, all made possible by the presence of the mobile phone on a continent with limited infrastructure.
Nonetheless, the following anecdote illustrates the caveats in relation to technology. Nji Collins Gbah, 17-year old Cameroonian, is Google’s new coding champion. He is a first African and one of 34 winners of the annual global Google Code-in competition. But Nji Collins Gbah’s hometown in Cameroon has been cut off from internet since mid-January.
It is important to not generalize or count on the transformational power of technological leaps in a naïve fashion. Technology will not take care of everything. Africa also needs basic services before it can use high-tech solutions, a minimal of infrastructure and government policy. We will need national and regional plans to incorporate the Digital Economy into our overall business strategy. South Africa, Botswana and Kenya have taken the lead to flesh out ICT plans and infrastructure. There are now growing expectations on African countries, conscious of the success of Silicon Savannah, to follow suit.
A big hurdle that technology innovation faces in Africa is access to energy. About 620 million Africans live without access to electricity. Yet mobile phones need to be charged and transmitter towers need power. Limited infrastructure on the ground also leads to congested mobile networks. Further constraints presented by data costs, regulation, and financing, have proved a drag to start-ups.
Our cities remain crowded, fragmented and disconnected. This means that commercial, industrial and housing infrastructure investment has been unable to keep up with the rise in urban population. The result is that congestion and the associated costs currently outdo the expected benefits of urban concentration. Effective urban planning and coordinated infrastructure investments should be prioritized strategies in helping Africa’s cities.
Having the tools for high-tech solutions is one side of the coin, talent creation, training people to use the tools is the other side. We have a demographic advantage with more than 70% of the rapidly urbanising population under 30. This young population wants nothing more than a phone, access to information and a chance to create something new. Investing in our human capital through excellent training is the precursor to capitalizing on technology.