Africa: problem or opportunity?

In his article “Why does being in Africa make you untrustworthy?“, Erik Hersman points out to the fact that Africans are generally suspects by default to the eyes of global corporations, which often put the continent off their radar.

Africa could be a continent of contrasts, but with lots of potentiality too. If only the world stopped making easy generalizations and looked closer to realize that.

One of the key factors for any business is to assess and be real about the context and the market in which operates. Thus, more accurate solutions can be provided to address specific needs, what improves the chance of success. If the context is problematic, that means there are needs to be fulfilled, and therefore that could be seen as an opportunity.

Tech4Africa_Ushahidi_Conference_Technology_AfricaAn example of this could be Hersman’s own enterprise, Ushahidi, a website that was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008, and which now it has become a platform with global reach.

Ushahidi is a world-class technology service, but owes its roots to providing a solution to the very African need of transparency, which turns out to be a global issue.
The organization’s technology is open source, and it is often used by Internet writer Clay Shirky as an example of a successful crowdsourcing movement.

Other entrepreneurs and businesses are also working to provide services tied up to specific regional socio-cultural and economic facts, as were seen at Tech4Africa 2010. Services like PesaPal (a mobile payments company in Nairobi, Kenya) or mPedigree (allows consumers to verify with a free text message if their medicines are safe), are proving to be on the right track when addressing local needs via the most used and available technology in their target markets.

Many other startup services in Africa are choosing to use SMS as their trading platform, among other things, due to the scarce Internet connectivity and the broader use of the cell phone in many areas of the continent. And companies are focusing on that too, such is the case of Zain Nigeria, which is offering its customers access to Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo via SMS.

Nevertheless, whether focused on local, regional or global needs, African technology startups and companies must build their products based on the highest standards, and for that it’s important to keep in touch with the world’s latest developments and practices, if the continent wants to get into the world’s radar and export its innovative products or play globally.

All in all, one of the ways to bootstrap Africa to the spotlight might be what the aforementioned African organizations are already doing; which is, as Erik Hersman put it in his article: “to come up with our own business solutions that work here first, and then interact with other global systems.”

Do you agree this could be a solution? Should Africans see the problems or the opportunities?

Photo courtesy of @whiteafrican via Flickr/Creative Commons

6 thoughts on “Africa: problem or opportunity?”

  1. If we have systems that truly work and solve our problems internally this will help us gain more credibility in the global systems. I completely agree that we should see these problems as opportunities.

  2. i really am confused, because however much we shout at it or about it, i fail to see good working vibrant examples of startups in africa, which i really have been looking after

    the only rather successful internet related activity i see is mostly related to old paper based newspapers coming online

    i went through all the startups listed in your sidebar and its really a depressing run throughout the list and i hardly think there is any thriving business behind those websites dwindling out there which either are not visited or riddled by spams or in some cases doesn’t even exist

    i think we need to do some ground work before aiming for the sky and try to copy the success of western models, and i am not sure how well any western or for that matter asian success can be adpoted to africa, sure they should act as our role models but not to be copied possibly to be inspired by

    i fully agree with your Erik Hersman quote, we really need to focus locally, and i really mean locally, because what works in south africa will probably not work in morocco or for that matter not in niger, chad nor somalia, the preconditions are simply not there

    so lets not see africa as a homogen destination because it certainly is not, at least in this regard. fact is its even impossible to see one country in itself as a homogen destination as most western countries seem to be

    …and simply therefore i really fail to excite myself on such notes as t4a and doesn’t sound to me as real, but hey, i am probably wrong, and would very much appreciate if anyone could show me the real success stories, thriving startups not supported by an ngo or side activities to support the main startups ideas….

    applause all your efforts and is grateful….

    1. Thanks Gobezu for your contribution. Like you said, as many startups struggle to be sustainable and successful, a way to push it forward is by sharing best practices and getting inspired by others.

  3. Nico, indeed. That actually probably sums up the whole aim of t4a, right?

    But I am looking high and low for those best practices, and I just can’t see them…no where, many mentions and celebs and creds but no financial success…

    No doubt I will hang on your wagon for as long as I can, and I myself have upcoming projects which in due time I hope will be featured somewhere here…


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