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There is a very popular notion that Africa hasn’t been able to shirk for some time now, namely that it’s a dark continent in need of saving. If we liken Africa’s story to that of a Disney fairytale, the continent is always the damsel in distress waiting for her prince to come in with his sword and slay the dragon guarding her.
Truth be told, I doubt the many innovators and billionaires in the West getting ready to save Africa think of her as a beautiful princess. Instead they pity Africa, hence the belief that they are swooping in to save the day.
“Is Africa waiting for America to bring it internet?” I have been asked at a good few conferences overseas.
“No, we already have that,” I respond. “Maybe you guys could work on bringing us Ben and Jerry, I would sell out for that.”
But I can set the scene for this little observation. Let’s back track to a month or so ago…
After a 20-something hour plane ride (I lost count at 21) I am in Los Angeles and couple of brilliant teens are about to wow me and it has nothing to do with a mobile phone or a selfie. In fact, it is about science and innovation and of all things, saving the world. I am at Intel’s Science fair.
Annually the competition brings together more than 1 700 high school students from over 70 countries, regions, and territories to showcase their independent research and compete for more than US$5-million in awards.
The competition begins with local and school-sponsored science fairs, with the winners then going on to participate in Intel ISEF-affiliated regional and state fairs. From there, the best wins the opportunity to attend Intel ISEF.
The competition gives students the opportunity to have their work judged and discussed by doctoral level scientists and Nobel laureates. The 2014 edition of ISEF saw 1 300 students between the ages of 14 and 18 showing off experiments they hope will change the world.
This year, 29 Africa teams from five countries took part, with projects that ranged from alternative energy sources and immunotherapy, to voice recognition, pest control and aids for the visually impaired. It also marked the first time that Kenya participated in the competition with two teams.
The teams were all made up of people under the age of 20 (‘kids’ by most standards) thinking up ideas that can and probably will save the world. The young African kids are re-imaging the face of everything and coming up with viable and tested solutions to old and new problems — African problems, global problems. These Africans, these damsels in distress, are ready to take on the helm of the problems that face their continent, if only someone would let them.
If we look at the range of the projects that these 29 teams came up with for the competition, could one really doubt the potential and innovative thinking that Africans are cable of?
…Back to today and demystifying the damsel of the dark continent
As Dayo Olopade, a Nigerian-American journalist who recently travelled through Africa, noted in a book and an interview with How We Made it in Africa, the continent is not waiting for anyone to save it.
“I think number one for me is this presumption of lack of agency, of disempowerment,” she says.
When we talk about Africa’s tech and entrepreneurial landscapes and the growing ecosystems, it is easy to get caught up in the challenges that face those working in the space. The funding issues — why aren’t international investors interested in what we are doing on the continent? Why don’t they get it?
Last year Ventureburn did a piece on funding in Africa and how local investors may or may not have driven the startups to seek funding outside the continent’s borders. The piece was based on a report by the Omidyar Network that surveyed African entrepreneurs on funding on the continent. The majority of the respondents argued that there is a shortage of equity capital to start new firms. The investors disagree, countering that many projects are not fundable.
“Instead of waiting on local investor sentiment to turn, entrepreneurs are looking beyond the African continent for funding,” the piece explained.
When funding is not being touted as a major challenge to starting and sustaining a business in Africa, infrastructure takes the next gauntlet of challenges to run through. There aren’t enough established business or tech infrastructure to help innovators create. There aren’t enough organised marketplaces to help these entrepreneurs sell.
It is easy to see how the world could think that Africa is indeed waiting to be saved by some big power entities that have it all figured out. The truth is these problems do exist, but Africa is getting on in spite of it.
In our Built In Africa series, we look at these innovators that are carrying on despite the challenges faced.
Back to the genius kids building Africa’s future
The real challenge really is that African innovators are waiting on governments to come on board with their vision, create the structures that will help them accelerate growth and building companies that only solve problems but creates opportunities.
If these kids are coming up with amazing solutions to existing problems, how can investors think that there are not enough fundable ideas? Surely business models could stand to be polished for more mature markets? What Africa really needs is not to be rescued, the ideas are all there, it just needs to push them through. Africa needs better execution, not a white knight.
So let’s give our little geniuses the opportunities to execute on a local and global scale.
Image: By Hans Splinter via Flickr.