Creating Wakanda: youth, technology and entrepreneurship across Africa

Report by J Boima Rogers – June 2018

This report on an event which was co-hosted by the Blavatnik School and the Pathways for Prosperity Commission evoked the recent Black Panther movie which is inspiring a generation of Africans to see themselves as technological leaders in a sci-fi world.  The objective was to discuss real-world technologically driven future vision of Africa, how this future can be created by people from the continent and whether Africa’s young entrepreneurs hold answers for Africa’s development and challenges such as youth unemployment. Presentations were made by Strive Musiyiwa, founder and executive chairman of the Econet Group, Atherton Mutombwera, founder and CEO of Hutano Diagnostics Ltd. and Jessica Price, co-founding partner of the Rhodes Incubator, which empowers scholars from diverse global communities. Professor Ngaire Woods, dean of the Blavatnik School of Government moderated the event.

In his opening statement Strive noted that technology is the path to prosperity and highlighted the exponential pace at which changes are taking place in the technology space making the process very disruptive.  The issue is how to manage the opportunities that arise from such disruptions. Africa needs to dramatically improve its educational systems, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), where it is lagging behind.  Entrepreneurship should not be viewed as a mechanical process or merely for profit rather entrepreneurs aim to solve problems.  Universities on the continent are producing graduates who cannot find jobs and the focus is training people to work for other people.  The challenge in developing an entrepreneurial culture is how to recognise, nurture and take it to the next stage.  The continent needs to move away from arrogance of governance, in particular, passing laws without consultation. Africa does not need to be focussed on foreign investment because there is significant capital that can be mobilised domestically.  The emphasis should be on how to harness entrepreneurship.  There must be a move away from reliance on natural resources because the pathway to prosperity is being smart. The private sector has more funds than governments and governments need to develop policies that will assist in the mobilisation of capital and movement of it across the continent.

Strive noted that stock market exchanges across the continent are not up to the challenge and need to up their games.    He cited Israel and Silicon Valley as models to look up to. In Israel the culture is promoted at high school level.  When he visited Silicon Valley he was very impressed on what the government was doing to make the environment conducive to entrepreneurs, something he noted the Chinese had copied.  Policy makers need to visit those countries as well as other African countries to see what have been achieved and how they can improve their own systems. He highlighted the mobile phone revolution in money transfers in Zimbabwe which was even more advanced than Kenya which pioneered the process and is often hailed.  Mauritius has developed a cyber city and is unique in having the facility for business registration where Econet is registered. Key challenges for entrepreneurs in Africa, which are universal, are: getting it right with regards to the product, customer base and monetising the product/concept; organising people (Staff) and; the business process, including the supply chain.

Atherton revealed that his start-up is looking at 7 diseases which are endemic or are severely impacting the continent to try to simplify diagnosis, a crucial development because there are only 14 laboratories for such processes on the continent. His unit is having conversations with stakeholders, developing the business at various levels, namely, the concept, company structure and execution.  His unit is based in Oxford to have access to technology and capital but plans to start a manufacturing and distribution in Africa.

Jessica introduced the Rhodes incubator she has co-founded which targets projects that will make a significant impact.  The challenge for Africa is developing eco-systems that will make it attractive for investment, notably, the legislative framework and funding streams. She noted that the success of technology has a cultural perspective which needs to change, in particular, the expectations of what the government can do.  Governments need to realise that they are not omnipotent and must be willing to give up rights and be ready to partner with other stakeholders.  Access to technology needs to be broadened.

Comments and analysis

Professor Ngaire Woods posed the question of what are the pathways to prosperity and what governments can do to create a more conducive environment.  She noted that crucial factors are the mind-set, minimising risks and developing a supportive infrastructure and highlighted the work of the Gates Foundation. Other participants noted the need for more conversation on opportunities and barriers to investment.  Countries, as South Africa has done, need to develop one-stop-shop facilities to enhance the investment process.  Kenya had recently hosted an event to review the regulatory regime to learn and test how to use the regulatory regime to support innovation, develop peer learn and peer pressure and networking, with the aim of enhancing new product development and minimising risks. A major point learned from that event was that regulators do not have the skills for innovators.

The event was very refreshing and part of a series that Blavatnik have organised in its pathway to prosperity programme. It gave a platform to innovators using new technology in a variety of ways, namely, a very successful African telecommunications, media and technology entrepreneur, an interesting start-up that aims to address pressing health issues facing the continent and an incubator which will broaden the technology landscape and mobilise funds to spur investment and development.  It brought into focus the notion that Africa offers investment opportunities and African entrepreneurs are active in the technology space.   While there has, as should be a lot of attention on the physical infrastructure, the focus at the event was on soft infrastructure, namely, the regulatory framework and training.  African governments, it would appear need to up their game and the continent needs to place more emphasis in developing STEM where it lags behind, to the detriment of a fast moving global technology sector.  It is rather perverse that it is turning out so many high school and university graduates who cannot find jobs while missing out on investment opportunities because of lack of skilled labour.

While it was laudable that Blavatnik hosted the event, such events should also be hosted in Africa, to make sure that this conversation hits home for all stakeholders.  One solution should be for events such as this one to incorporate a webinar capacity, whereby audiences in Africa and elsewhere can participate. Two other processes could further develop this important forum, ensure that it is not just a talking shop and build momentum.  Firstly, it would help if such forums are documented to allow stakeholders who cannot participate to have access to the event.  Blavatnik, the African Union and national governments could develop databases of such forums, initiatives, regulatory regimes, stakeholders and indices that governments and entrepreneurs could tap into to learn from, offer advice and facilitate networking.

One issue that I disagree with Strive about is the fact that he downplayed the role of Africa’s natural resources.  While I do not think these should be the sole focus in the development process, they can and must play a major role.  Developing and processing products from these natural resources still have a crucial role to play.  African countries have for too long exported raw commodities and imported processed products.  Processing such commodities will add value, provide employment, develop other related downstream products and minimise the volatility in prices and revenues that commodities are often subjected to.  Technological breakthroughs could assist in making this transition.

With regard to one of the major challenges facing the continent, youth employment, making use of the continent’s vast resources will be more effective by increasing the production and productivity of minerals and agricultural products and processing them.  This in no way means that technology should be ignored, indeed it will be an ever increasing part of the development process which requires a multi-pronged approach.  Training, particularly focussing on STEM as noted by Strive should be a priority but this should be in tandem with improvements in traditional sectors.  While Africa cannot afford to continue lagging behind new technology, the sector can only absorb a small percentage of its fast growing labour force.  It will generally help improve its overall competitiveness and economic growth, allowing farms, mines, factories, supply chains and services to offer employment opportunities. The crucial factor here though will be improvements in physical and soft infrastructure, reduced corruption, avoiding wars and civil strife, all things that are not specifically geared towards the technology sector or sexy, but just plain simple good governance.

Technology should not be viewed as a stand-alone sector but rather the engine for development.  The challenge is how to leverage new technology to assist in the development process.  Mobile phones have played a part in providing market intelligence for farmers.  Mobile phones played a crucial role in Nigeria’s effective and prompt response to the recent Ebola epidemic. Atherton’s work in the health sector and Jessica’s start-up which aims to diversify access to new technology are part of that process.  In my paper on the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa I noted that Big Data would be very useful in mapping the spread of the disease and efforts to stem the epidemic.  New technology, in particular, the digital revolution can and should therefore be used for a range of sectors, including agriculture, mining, tourism, health etc.

One interesting point is that all of the presenters are operating out of their home base which itself demonstrate the challenges African countries face and how they lose out on one of their most significant resource base, their entrepreneurs.  Strive’s Econet is based in South Africa and registered in Mauritius, rather than his native Zimbabwe.  This is partly because of the protracted and bitter fight he had with the Zimbabwean authorities who tried to muzzle the operations of their talented son, according to my sources, because he would not give in to corrupt government officials. It is also likely that the depressed market conditions and dilapidated infrastructure of that country, Mugabe’s legacy, was not a conducive environment for his company.  Atherton’s Hutano Diagnostics is based in the UK rather than his native Zimbabwe, as is Jessica’s Rhodes incubator instead of her native South Africa.  African countries must therefore do a lot more to hold on to their crown jewels and attract those who have flown the nest.  This factor is even more so in the globalised digital world.

BIOGRAPHIES

Strive Masiyiwa is the founder and executive chairman of Econet Group, a pan-African telecommunications, media and technology company with operations and investments in over 20 countries. Masiyiwa has been selected twice, in 2014 and 2017, to Fortune Magazine’s list of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders”. Over the last few years, Masiyiwa has devoted his time to mentoring the next generation of African entrepreneurs through his Facebook page, which has a growing followership of nearly 3-million young people from across the continent. Facebook has identified his platform as the most engaging of any business leader in the world. Masiyiwa serves on a number of international boards including Unilever Plc, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Advisory Board, the Africa Progress Group, and the Hilton Foundation’s Humanitarian Prize Jury. Strive is founder and co-chair of the Pathways for Prosperity Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development.

Atherton Mutombwera is the founder and CEO of Hutano Diagnostics Ltd. Hutano Diagnostics Ltd is a start-up developing a diagnostic and surveillance platform for diseases caused by emerging and dangerous pathogens which cause recurring epidemics in Africa. The company is currently developing an Ebola diagnostic and surveillance platform. Atherton has experience in healthcare provision, Nano biotechnology research and business. He graduated with an undergraduate degree in Pharmacy, then obtained an MSc in Nanoscience as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar. He was awarded the Coursework Masters Award in the Science, Engineering and Technology fields by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in 2016. His research focus during the MSc was the development of a rapid diagnostic device for Ebola. He has most recently completed an MBA at the University of Oxford as a Louis Dreyfus-Weidenfeld and Hoffmann Saïd Scholar.

Jessica Price is a co-founding partner of the Rhodes Incubator, which empowers scholars from diverse global communities to use entrepreneurship to drive impact. Jessica is particularly interested in the intersection of entrepreneurship and complex societal challenges, particularly questions of access to healthcare, and improving health systems. She holds an MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) and MPH from the University of Cape Town, and is currently on a Rhodes scholarship in Oxford studying for a DPhil in Primary Care Health Sciences.

 

J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO) www.oxfordmemo.co.uk

 

 

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