Op-ed – To lead in innovations, Africa must invest heavily in its youth

BY AWEL UWIHANGANYE

In an increasingly mobile global economy, it is important that African thought leaders consider the subject of innovations in the context of the millions of jobs that can be created, and the larger impact on human life. The factors that inhibit Africa’s emergence as the next hub for innovations are the same factors that position Africa as ideal for the innovations to happen – population and demographics.

Of the world’s 7.3 billion people, 1.2 billion are Africans, representing the second largest population after China. By 2050, the population will have grown to 2.2 billion people. Of these, two thirds are youth under the age of 25. With these numbers in mind, it becomes obvious that Africa must acknowledge population and demography as its competitive advantages. The median age in North America is 37 to 40, while in Europe it is 37 years and projected to be 52 years in 2050. On the contrary, Africa’s median age is 19.

To compete, Africa must consider unleashing its human power onto the world by investing in skills, creating conducive environments for innovation, and most importantly, shaping the software for this innovation – our mindsets. What Africa requires is a youth population that is clear on its self-identity, self-worth and a commitment to create and change.

Additionally, Africa has the fastest growing rates of both mobile telephony and data penetration, with a projected 700 million users of smart phones by 2050. Mobile technology and data usage have been central to the wave of disruptive innovations across the world.

To compete, Africa must consider unleashing its human power onto the world by investing in skills, creating conducive environments for innovation, and most importantly, shaping the software for this innovation – our mindsets.

The Western economy, capitalism and the age of innovation

Innovation from a western experience is leading to more automated systems, replacing human effort in production and delivery of services. The drive for innovative solutions for Africa cannot afford to adopt this approach, for a region with 50% of global poverty. Africa must find a balance in its adoption of technological innovation where the benefits of efficient and fast communications are balanced against building efficient economies where labour is utilised.

One can argue that disruptive innovations are another way for capitalism to maintain a stranglehold on world economies by keeping maximum profits flowing in the pockets of the already rich. The phrase “disruptive innovations” is reflective of similar catch phrases often shaped by capitalist drivers of economic thought to direct consumer trends and economic outlook. Using the power of the media, such phrases translate into a narrative, which the rest of us conform to, and even when the narratives are shaped for audiences in western economies, the rest of the world catches on, Africa included.

Disruption like many other trending fads such as the “Africa rising” narrative, are products from the Silicon Valley mind labs, made more popular with the entrepreneurship start-up culture inherent in the capitalist Silicon Valley mind labs model. Thanks to their efforts, innovation in the tech-world has radically changed the way most people access services and are increasingly putting traditional businesses out of the game. Modern business thinking demands an adaptation to technology; businesses either innovate or die.

Take an example of Netflix, a company formed in 1997 that radically changed access to video and movie content. Through its innovative business model of media streaming and video-on-demand, Netflix put thousands of videos and media content within button reach from the latest entertainment to classic documentaries, at an affordable cost. Previously, the business of movie rental services was dominated by Blockbuster, which however filed for bankruptcy in 2010 after a rapid decline in its revenue since the early 2000s after Netflix entered the market. Blockbuster never saw that change happening within such a short time; and now, several cable companies have followed suit – they have either closed or are struggling to cope.

Uber, with its simplified model of offering cab or taxi services at much reduced fares, and with ability to track and rate services delivered, is leaving traditional cab drivers and taxi companies globally in disarray while enjoying favorable response from its customers. Uber makes the passengers life so simplified, from ordering a taxi, to payment, and receipt. The same goes for services offered by Spotify, the audio and music sharing platform, as well as Airbnb – a platform giving nightmare to traditional hotel accommodation service around the world.

Finding the right balance: How do we get moving in Africa?

Africa is presently the much-taunted next frontier for economic growth and opportunity – a phrase reminiscent of colonialists arriving on Africa’s shores ready to conquer. Moving through many innovations and accelerator hubs, you will meet some of Africa’s bright minds working on a wide range of ideas that can offer solutions for easier and effective delivery of social services.

For the millions of innovative ideas being advanced by the young generation in Africa to impact societies where they live and the world around them, several factors must fall in place. First, Africa needs its own “Silicon Valleys” – investment in environments and infrastructure to enable an economic system that supports critical thought, incubates ideas and accelerates viable ventures. Secondly, the public and private sector drivers must recognise this as a critical component for economic dynamism that will enable service providers to offer solutions to a wide network of people across the continent.

The combination of population growth and demographics, cell phone penetration and increase in data as drivers for tech innovations, all point to the direction that Africa can lead in innovations.

Uber, Airbnb, Spotify or any of these western-developed innovations will not grow economies in Africa. They will make the life of the privileged class more comfortable but not create jobs on scale or get millions out of poverty. The mindset towards African innovation must offer solutions to the most pressing problems or needs of the people in critical areas such as health, education, finance or even recreation. Investments must be made into such innovations to reach scale. Investing in innovations that are not inclusive, that exclusively cater for the elite and well to do, will only heighten the income divide with negative consequences.

Some of the African innovations that have succeeded in disrupting how services are accessed, give hope that this is possible.  Mobile Money – an innovation by Safaricom in Kenya is perhaps the best example of disruptive innovation radically changing how ordinary people can access services on a simple mobile platform, giving sleepless nights to the traditional banking institutions. The other example is Nollywood from Nigeria with its film production catering for a mass audience in Africa that relates to story narratives more than they can relate to Hollywood movies.

The combination of population growth and demographics, cell phone penetration and increase in data as drivers for tech innovations, all point to the direction that Africa can lead in innovations.

The extent to which we shall see these innovations disrupting economic service systems on scale, leading to billion dollar investments and listings on world stock markets, are yet to be imagined. However, for a start, we must think-tank how to innovate differently. We cannot win by doing it the American way or how it has been done in western economies. We simply do not have the same software (mindset) with a vision of society and agenda like they do.

Investing in young people in Africa, shaping their mindset and validating their ideas and thought processes about their place in an increasingly globalised world, is what we must do. After all, they are the greatest resource the continent has.

Awel is the Founder & Senior Director at the LéO Africa Institute, organizers of the 2017 LéO Africa Economic Forum.

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