Can Africa Become an Innovator in Digital Technology?

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Home to six of the world’s fastest growing economies, Africa’s development is capturing global attention. And there’s a sense that the timing couldn’t be better. The rise of digital industries and mobile internet come at a time when African infrastructure is primed to take full advantage.

Foreign investors are well aware of this, too, as they see the potential for growth in Africa for digital services. There’s also the fact mobile brings the internet to people of all markets and wealth. Which makes Africa’s 1 billion population (14% of the entire world) an attractive prospect.

Africa isn’t just shaping up as a place to outsource digital skills on the cheap, though. Industry experts are already talking about many African nations as digital innovators in the near future.

 

A digital boom in Africa

Much like parts of South America and Southeast Asia, Africa is feeling the full brunt of a digital boom. We’re talking about many countries that still don’t have reliable telephone lines or TV access nationwide. Suddenly, internet access is available to almost everyone via mobile and everything changes.

 

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Source: Atlas

 

It’s a boom that’s changing every industry, if not least how businesses operate. Trade across the continent is easier and more organised than ever, journalists have an open resource like never before (save for some occasional censorship) and business travel costs are a forgotten necessity. Things taken for granted in developed nations are revolutionising business in Africa.

 

Can Africa turn opportunity into innovation?

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Naadiya Moosajee, Co-Founder of WomEng, wrote for the World Economic Forum in January. “And in Africa it has been the mother of innovation,” she said.

Until recently, Africa’s development has been heavily reliant on foreign investment and natural resources. This is still true today but things are quickly changing. The digital revolution levelled the playing field for technical skills. An African developer can be just as good as anyone else in the world with access to all the same resources. A new kind of opportunity is rising in African countries and people are proving they know how to take advantage.

As Naadiya Moosajee says, though, it’s necessity where Africa’s flair for innovation emerges from.

One example is the mobile payments industry across Africa – something like nowhere else in the world. Without widespread access to PayPal, credit cards and other payment options normal to many, African banks took a different direction. Mobile payments allow people to pay for bills and services, transfer money between people and manage their accounts in ways many developed nations can still only talk about.

The list of African mobile innovations is impressive – not least in the health and agriculture sectors. It’s still early days, too; African innovation has more room to grow than most markets and investors are queueing up.

 

The challenges facing African innovation

There’s no doubt Africa has huge potential to become an innovator in digital technology and services – amongst other things. It would be foolish to ignore the challenges facing innovation in Africa, though.

Corruption remains a big problem in many of Africa’s most advanced economies. Meanwhile, a lack of creative freedom in some nations can make it difficult for innovation to thrive.

Security is also an issue for many – most notably Nigeria, where Lagos is becoming one of Africa’s technology hubs. Security concerns don’t only put businesses at risk but also dent investor confidence. These are all challenges African nations will have to overcome in their quests to become digital innovators.

 

Featured image: Public domain

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.