In startups we trust: Africa and its ‘silent’ rise to stardom

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It’s starting to get redundant to say tech is big in Africa. Of course tech is big in Africa. Tech is big everywhere – it’s our favourite toy right now. A few weeks ago, I was hanging around Social Media Week in Lagos, Nigeria and what really stood out for me is not that tech is big, but that Africa’s tech explosion is facing some challenges.

The questions people are starting to ask aren’t around the number of apps the continent’s tech entrepreneurs need to build or the number of tech innovations that will allow it stand out. The questions being asked revolve around the fundamental problems limiting Africa’s youth in a tech savvy world. What skills are missing on the continent and how can this be solved? How are education systems letting the continent down, and what role can governments and multinationals corporations play in getting the continent on par with the rest of the world?

The continent’s projected growth s heavily hinged on tech entrepreneurs. This is no different to the rest of the world – as other nations depend on tech to help drive more growth, so does Africa. Tech powers every aspect of our daily lives, it ought to enable more effective governance, and it really should drive social and economic change.

Africa has seen some impressive entrepreneurs from the tech-energized streets of West Africa, the innovation hubs of East Africa, and all the way down to the shores of Southern Africa amazing things are being built. But now what?

Time the combat the big challenges

While we are all busying ourselves with the daydreams of the continent on the rise, major challenges on the ground stop the the full metamorphosis. Speaking at Social Media Week in Lagos, the Nigerian ICT Minister, Omobola Johnson, noted that there were three key elements stopping Nigeria from hitting the target of what it means to truly own the space: skills, infrastructure and local investment.

“There are vacancies in the ICT sector that we cannot fill because of lack of skills, so we’re working on skill development,” she said.

Also, education systems need to be on par with the rest of the world. Kids in African classrooms should benefit from the same access to resources that kids in other classroom enjoy.

These problems are not unique to Nigeria. Quite the contrary — they resound across the continent and pose some of the biggest threats to the continent’s growth as a superpower. If we are to prepare Africa’s youth for a tech-savvy world these things need to be solved.

There are people working to solve these challenges: RLabs with its centres, Intel with is entrepreneurship competitions, Microsoft and its dev centres and the many code academies teaching development skills.

“I think that the most interesting thing I have noticed regarding the startups I work with — at least certainly the tech startups — is the scope of ideas available, as well as the vibrancy of that space in terms of how dynamically and fast paced things are moving,” Intel’s Stanley Muoneke tells me.

The vibrancy of the space makes it a lucrative one to invest in and someone will always come along to bridge the infrastructural and skills gap.

However, an even more pernicious battle faces the continent that very little is being done about — discourse. Who is telling Africa’s stories? How are the stories being told? What stories are being told?

Let’s light up the continent

The stereotypes about Africa still echo through the globe. As much as multinationals recognise the potential of the continent and are willing to invest copious amounts of money, there are still doubters. I have become a conference groupie in the last year and at every international conference that takes place in the West the same questions arises in the first 10 minutes of every new meeting: “Africa, huh? How did you get here? Why are you here? It’s a long way to come.” And my personal favourite: “Is tech journalism a thing there?”

It is the responsibility for every African tech entrepreneur, tech investor and tech journalist to break down the barricades of these Stygian preconceptions of the continent. If Africa is ready to sit idly by while the rest of the world pontificates about it without participation then it deserves to remain in the dark.

“If you look for images of Africa online you’ll find an overabundance of wildlife or urban poverty,” writes Erik Hersman. “And, while these are part of our narrative, the vast quantity of these pictures would lead you to believe that this is the main story. Maybe it is for people who don’t live here, but why are we letting others own that?”

Good question indeed.

The way Africa comes across in current discourse makes it difficult for the continent’s youth to really take their place on the world stage without having to fight through stereotypes built on a very specific image of Africa.

Blinded by the shortcoming: Africa’s worst cheerleader

“What are you? Africa’s number one cheerleader?” a Silicon Valley venture capitalist asked me last November in jest.

“Hmm… I suppose,” I responded after a brief hesitation.

That hesitation is Africa’s biggest obstacle when it comes to owning its stories.

How do we combat this though? IBM Research Africa has a solution that I think needs to happen every year — Click Africa. The project’s aim is to “help tell the other side of Africa’s story” through imagery. According to IBM, the project generated more than 1200 images by over 900 participants in 25 African countries. The photographs account for all aspects of the continent, the good and bad.

In startups (and tech) we trust

In changing the discourse around Africa, a lot of hope has been pinned on the startups that gain international acclaim. Like the sports stars and movie stars that now reside in the West but are originally from Africa, we look to startups to exit to big Silicon Valley companies so we can sit among the commentators and talk about “our people” who made it over there. With so many repats (returning expats) seeking their startup fame on the continent, are we still destined to hope that if one startup moves to Silicon Valley it will automatically change the discourse? If anything it paints the picture that a tech startup cannot thrive in Africa, and well all know that is not true.

When it comes to Africa, perhaps the discourse needs to be critically optimistic — no glossing over, no hope pinning, just fair. There are challenges, but in most challenges lie opportunity.

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