Africa: The cradle of innovation

While the West squabbles over sovereignty, Africa is focusing its efforts on something altogether more productive – its blossoming start-up and innovation culture. To date we’ve read success stories about phenomenal funding rounds and a billion-dollar IPO, but we think this is just the beginning.

Admittedly from a monetary value perspective, Africa’s tech ecosystem doesn’t come close to the likes of Shenzhen or Silicon Valley – yet. But when you consider that the number of tech hubs has grown by nearly 50% in the last year [1], and that African start-ups raised a record $1.1 billion in 2018 [2] – it’s pretty clear this is one of the world’s booming tech markets.

With a wealth of young and passionate talent, it’s only a matter of time before Africa establishes itself as a key player on the global tech stage. But the road to innovation never did run smooth, so join us as we dive deeper into what the future could hold for this promising continent.

 

Why the sudden interest?

Last year, more high-level government attention was paid to start-ups and digital transformation in Africa than ever before.

Major milestones included the African Union starting to draft its recommendations for digital policy, aiming to achieve digital empowerment for all on the continent by 2030. As well as the passing of Tunisia’s Start-up Act, which outlines support measures for new businesses navigating this budding ecosystem.

Rising investor confidence in the sector has also helped enormously, with fledgling businesses finally receiving the vital Series A funding they need to accelerate their expansion. Fintech start-ups are currently winning favour with investors and of the African companies that received cash injections in 2018, those in fintech accounted for 40% and five of the top ten biggest deals done.[3]

 

Early signs of success

Although the revolutions in the north and famines in the east and west of Africa cannot be ignored, it’s encouraging to see that pockets of turmoil aren’t hampering the continent’s overall growth. The African Development Bank is even forecasting a 4% rise in GDP this year, placing Africa just behind Asia as the world’s quickest growing region. Pretty remarkable right?

In Africa, tech hubs tend to be concentrated in five countries: South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya or Morocco. If we zoom in on cities, Cape Town takes the title of largest start-up ecosystem (around 1,200 new business) and Lagos nabs the accolade for the most valuable (valued at $2 billion).[4]

The vast increase in start-ups and tech hubs means more new businesses are putting down their roots outside the continent’s legacy tech markets. So, it looks like start-up fever will soon be spreading further across Africa.

 

A bubbling talent pool

As the buzz around working in tech continues to build, there is an enthusiasm from younger Africans to learn more about AI and machine learning. And as the world’s youngest population (60% aged under 25) [5], this could give the continent a significant competitive advantage.

Previously Africa has been an untapped pool of tech talent, but European and North American companies are becoming wiser to this and are tempting the best software engineers away with offers of better pay and skills advancement. While others may not choose to leave the continent, many are still opting to work remotely for foreign companies, meaning their resources are not being used to fuel the African economy.

 

Remedying the brain drain

Action is being taken to keep talent on the continent, one example of which is Deep Learning Indaba. Founded in 2017, this conference is on a mission to “strengthen machine learning and artificial intelligence in Africa”.[6] Indaba’s organisers want to move towards a world where Africans actively shape and own technological advances – their days of watching from the side-lines are over.

Deep Learning Indaba is a direct response to the well-known Western tech conferences, which are notoriously hard for the African research community to attend because of visa troubles and vast associated expense. This often leads African academics to be left out of important global tech conversations and more definitely needs to be done to rectify this.

 

Seeing the bigger picture

Much tech research is conducted in wealthy pockets of the planet, like Silicon Valley, which don’t have a particularly broad or balanced world view. Given the problems Africa faces with hunger, poverty and disease it could provide some much-needed context.

These are global issues, not ones faced by Africa alone, that will become more prevalent if climate change continues to go unaddressed. However, the exposure of local entrepreneurs to these challenges may offer a more accurate perspective on how best to improve them. By working together with innovators from around the world, Africa can add a valuable dynamic and as we’ve said in this blog, diversity only improves innovation, particularly when it represents the audience it’s designed to serve.

 

Innovating for the greater good

The current technologies coming out of Africa are already heavily influenced by the local environment and concerns on the ground. On a continent that doesn’t have the luxury of innovating for innovation’s sake, products and services seek to offer genuine help to their users.

Successes so far have included using machine learning as an early warning system for crop disease, maintaining consistent food production. Another example is Harambee, a South African social enterprise, that uses machine learning to help young people find work and has so far set 100,000 on the path to employment.[7]

 

A final thought

At a Google event in Amsterdam last year, Mustapha Cissé, the Head of Google AI in Accra, Ghana said that “the potential for having a positive impact is higher here [in Africa], if not higher.”[8] And, we agree.

A seemingly limitless pool of enthusiastic tech talent, a more grounded world view, increased government backing and rapidly growing financial investment, puts Africa on a very promising road to becoming an innovation leader that has a real and positive impact on the world.

 

Enjoyed this blog? Have a look at what else we’ve been discussing here.

 

 

References:

[1] Quartz Africa, 2019. http://bit.ly/2ORyzcJ

[2] Partech, 2019. http://bit.ly/2MiMHdu

[3] WeForum, 2019. http://bit.ly/2IYyeBs

[4] Quartz Africa, 2017. http://bit.ly/2qjoZFq

[5] Gates Notes, 2018. http://bit.ly/2oM4KzJ

[6] Deep Learning Indaba, 2019. http://bit.ly/2BdlSku

[7] Harambee, 2019. http://bit.ly/33E2vx0

[8] Silicon Republic, 2019. http://bit.ly/2IWauO7