African technology to compete on a global stage
The landing of a series of undersea cables is going to solve an infrastructural problem that has long plagued Africa and will enable African technology developers to compete on a global stage. In order to properly realise the full potential of a global customer base, African technologists need to not only expose their work to the world, but to also expose themselves to the learnings and insights that the developed world has to offer.
New international submarine communication cables are starting to ring the continent, bringing with them the promise of cheaper broadband across the continent. That means Africa will soon have the infrastructure to be able to compete more effectively in the online space than it did in the past. But Africa has missed out on several years of important learning in this space. Now is the perfect time for African entrepreneurs to embrace business and technical expertise from the rest of the world and close that gap.
An all-too common and incorrect perception in South Africa and other parts of the continent is that African problems are different to those experienced anywhere else in the world, and that they should be addressed with uniquely African solutions. According to this view of the world, international best practices and experiences, especially those from developed countries, are not really applicable to African businesses. That is a misguided and parochial perspective in a world where technology and global trade have shrunk the world to a fraction of its former size.
In high-tech industries, such as Web-focused businesses, there is much that African entrepreneurs, public servants and technicians can learn from international experience. In fact, it’s imperative that African businesses embrace international experience and knowledge if they’re to catch up with what their peers are doing online in the rest of the world.
Of course, Africa has infrastructure, political and social challenges that are not present in most parts of the world. Building an online business in an environment where the electricity supply is unreliable and where international bandwidth is slow and expensive is fraught with challenges that don’t exist for an entrepreneur building a business in the heart of Silicon Valley.
But in addition to their superb infrastructure, innovation hubs like the west and east coasts of the USA also offer an unrivaled depth of human capital. Whatever an entrepreneur’s business idea is, there are people around who have the experience and skills to help make it a reality. And of course, the more that experienced people share their skills and knowledge with each other, the more new ideas and concepts they come up with and the more successful they are turning their innovations into commercial products.
By contrast, an African entrepreneur trying to productise a nifty new mobile application or a new online service simply doesn’t have access to many local people who have the skills and experience. There is an abundance of great ideas and enthusiasm but a lack of experience in turning these ideas into commercial products.
There have been a few success stories – innovators such as Mark Shuttleworth, Elon Musk and Vinny Lingham come to mind – but they are exceptions to the rule and their skills are often lost to Africa when their businesses take off. An additional problem that becomes obvious from the above list, is that South Africans dominate the list of obvious success stories while technologists from the rest of Africa do not feature as highly.
Most of the processes, technology and tools that African entrepreneurs will be using to create Web and mobile products and services will be similar to those used by people in other parts of the world. There are many universal lessons around project management, usability, product development, technology and many other areas that apply anywhere in the world, and they’re ones many American and European pioneers had to learn the hard way. Speccing and configuring a server, designing a good user interface, managing cashflow – these are all things that work the same way anywhere in the world.
So why not learn from international experience? The alternative is to stubbornly waste time and money reinventing the wheel and making the mistakes that others have already made. And that is something that no African entrepreneur can afford to do.
The Tech4Africa conference being held in August this year, aims to address the above issues by bringing a number of world famous technologists and African innovators to South Africa to share, teach and interact with Africans looking to make it in the technology space. It’s an exciting time for African technology and the opportunity that Tech4Africa presents is one that really shouldn’t be missed.