The investment appetite in “tech” innovation in Africa is high, although minuscule compared to what start-ups in the West receive in VC. But it represents only a small part of Africa’s innovation capacity and drive. In fact, the “tech” investment appetite in Africa is a biased undertaking.
The recently released report State of Tech in Africa 2021, advocates for more corporations to be involved in Africa’s startup ecosystem. It argues corporations are a key player but have a tendency to be missing and that when they do engage “the preferred way for corporates to engage with early stage startups remains POCs (proof of concept) followed by partnerships”.
Of course, the African side of the partnership is dominated by the corporation. In many cases the “deals” are undisclosed. This is a way not so much to be discreet but rather to, on the business side of things, avoid sending “positive signals” to African start-up founders and to other potential investors so as to better compete in the scramble for accessing and controlling African innovation, and on the foreign government side of things, smudge over the vested interests tied to national “security” and/or economic diplomacy objectives of the corporations’ home country.
The real need is to bridge the widening gap between investment in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and investment inthe other technology sectors that are critical for progress and development.
Africa is the “mostest” in innovation
Africans, especially young African men and women, are consistently innovating. The Covid pandemic, like in the rest of the world, has caused widespread disruption of lives on the continent. But it has also served as a booster for the drive to innovate in the skills, methods, processes, and devices. Young African entrepreneurs are, against all odds, actively developing and delivering POF practical, accessible, inclusive solutions to overcome local challenges with regards to machinery and equipment, transportation, market access, and non-Information and Communications (ITC) goods and services.
However, such solutions are not as attractive toVC investors or corporations, because they don’t depend on Big Tech. The dominant foreign tech companies vying to exploit the growing African market (Africa is the world’s fastest growing continent – 2.5% annually - in terms of population) are driven by profit maximization at any cost. In many ways, they assume that human behavior and action is free “data” for the taking. At the same time, they seek to exploit authentic African unicorns (M-Pesa, Sokowatch, Swivl, Wari, among many others) in the same vein as during the past legacy of technological imperialism: use existing local potential to lower the cost of penetrating, conquering and exploiting new territories or markets.
It’s hard to reconcile Google or Facebook or Microsoft, who are far removed from African realities, actively investing in order to save the unbanked women and youths of Africa or the uninformed, underequipped small farmers struggling to make a living. This is not to say that ICT tech solutions are not important for development efforts. They are. Access to quality data and secure infrastructure to share and store data can help improve healthcare, education,agricultural productivity, and transportation efficiency.
But more important, and critically so, is the need to reject a business model that stifles or discriminates against investment in the non-ICT tech sectors. ICT is not all marvelous. A data-driven bias is sidelining the human aspects of daily life. After all, data are people.
Teching-up Africa ignores Africa
The race to “tech-up” Africa ignores cultural value systems and contextual factors and instead treats people as passive objects of manipulation. It impoverishes the development of more appropriate local products and services, while leaving Africans dependent on Western software and infrastructure.
Innovation cannot be simplified to algorithms, nor can complex socio-economic problems be “solved” by ICT, especially not when it is exogenous. And it hurts those who are already vulnerable, disadvantaged or underserved by excluding them (no access to internet or the latest cell phone model, so no access to information, knowledge and support networks), by perpetually indebting them (digitization of lending through microfinance), and by sidelining or ignoring “bottom of the pyramid” entrepreneurial projects because they don’t answer to the “tech” misnomer.
Indeed, state-of-the-art ITC tech in many ways is becoming a tool for empire building in the new scramble for African wealth in natural and human resources, the latter in terms of “thinkers”, innovators, creators, and, of course, consumers.
Africans must take ownership of their technology assets
Harnessing “tech” to drive development means equitably prioritizing the welfare of all Africans and ensuring the benefits of “data mining” work in favor of African economies not of Western start-ups using an African public facing or Big Tech companies touting the “connecting the unconnected” or “liberating the bottom billion” spiel. Investing in “tech” does not mean steamrolling African non-ICT tech start-ups out of existence or outmuscling non-ICT African talent and innovation.
Harnessing “tech” means investing in the development of technology in the true sense of the word to overcome the challenges that Africans face in their context and which are meaningful for their development, not the development of others. Above all, it means leaving no one behind by building on African innovation without coopting it, diverting it, colonizing it, or killing it in the name of “technological solutions for the developing world”.
It’s time Africans started taking ownership of their tech drive for their own benefit first.