On the heels of
Facebook CEO’s Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to Africa, some young African
leaders and I sat to consider the question Zuckerberg is looking to
answer: what can technology do in Africa?
On September 31st, 2016, I had the privilege of moderating a panel on
technology in Africa for over a hundred young African leaders. Stars From All Nations
, a by-and-for youth social enterprise, organized the second edition of
Quantum Leap Career Fair for President Obama’s Young African Leaders
Initiative (YALI), West Africa. The event brought together 20+ companies
in sectors such as education, technology, fashion, agribusiness, real
estate and so on.
The goal: explore how these leaders can harness technology,
specifically digital and mobile technology, to deepen the impact of
their work on the continent.
To note: the YALI cohort is the cream of the crop of their peers.
They have been selected from over 10,000+ applicants from 9 West African
countries. In the 5-week program held in Accra, these young leaders
learn the skills and tools to be effective change-makers in their
On the panel:
- Racquel Wilson: Communications and Branding Expert helping
innovative companies and leaders tell compelling stories about their
- Moussa Moumouni : Regional IT Manager for Unilever West Africa, one of the largest producers/retailers of consumer goods in Africa
- Louis Mensah: Director of Private-public partnerships at VOTO mobile, a mobile platform which connects organizations to their under-heard constituents
- Alloysius Attah: CEO and Cofounder of Farmerline, a technology company empowering farmers in Africa
Having been raised in the U.S. and returning to Ghana 8 months ago, I
had the opportunity to consider this conversation in light of both
experiences, comparing and contrasting realities in both places. These
are the insights that stood out to me:
1. We need to urgently encourage young Africans to develop technology-enabled capacities and businesses
As the panelists expressed, if we believe that the future of
technology in Africa is NOW, then we must embrace and adopt technology
with urgency and intention. We must do a better job of engaging in
conversations and developing strategies and capacities that will allow
young people to learn of and understand the inherent benefits of
technology so that they instinctively want to develop these skills.
There were way too many young leaders in the audience working on a
number of projects for which they did not have an active presence online
— neither a website or social media account. A young woman came up to
me at the end of the panel to share that she does hair and sews African
clothing but is not online and wants to learn how to get there. I was
excited about the possibility of showing off her skills and creations to
a world now eager for African clothes and fashion.
It occurred to me: this woman’s absence online is a huge loss for the
continent; a loss magnified by the sheer number of Africans in her
In fact, a question we must all ask ourselves is this: what is the
world missing from Africa because we do not have access to the ideas and
talents of these young people?
2. The tools for business in Africa may and will look different than that elsewhere
I asked our panel to list the technologies they use in their work.
They all mentioned Google drive and email for their effectiveness in
sharing and collaboration. I intimately know and understand that many
young Africans, including those in some top-tier universities around the
continent, are not using the cloud software (Google Drive), but are
rather, still sharing, copying, and re-composing their projects. It is
quite costly to stay online and do work.
But, what young Africans do have and use: WhatsApp.
Whereas Whatsapp is scarcely used in the U.S., in Africa and
elsewhere in the “developing world”, Whatsapp is a prominent feature of
our daily lives. “Whatsapp for Business” is a reality. Panelist
Alloysius Attah shared the importance of the app for collaboration
between his team and their partners at Farmerline.
With dispersed teams and customers (ex. some members in Accra &
Kumasi, Ghana & the U.S. at VOTO mobile) and data inefficiencies
across the continent, Whatsapp stands out as a cheaper alternative to
perhaps other more effective tools for team management and productivity.
In fact, the same can be said of mobile money — a tool initially
designed to increase access to banking for the informal sector — with a
growing presence in the formal sector.
3. Technology is still expensive, both directly and indirectly for businesses, entrepreneurs, and leaders in Africa
Even as the internet continues to penetrate further into the
continent, staying connected is expensive. Young African leaders face
extraordinary costs for data, and constant service interruption, power
outages, and slow delivery makes staying productive online a huge
Panelist Moussa Moumouni explained that one-way Unilever West Africa
deals with connectivity issues is by having 2–3 providers. While a great
solution for a fortune 500 company operating in Africa, it is an
impossible solution for the young coder or marketer, and the
implications of this reality must be considered as we forge ahead.
4. The consumer market for technology products and services is not ready for the innovative products being developed
VOTO Mobile and Farmerline are two companies whose mission would
suggest a direct consumer strategy. VOTO mobile connects the under-heard
through cheap two-way communications. Farmerline gets relevant
information to farmers to improve productivity and yield.
But it is incredibly difficult to get a farmer or a person off-grid
to first know about, then buy into and finally start using a new
technology at a rate that will allow a startup to scale effectively.
One strategy that works is this: “sell upstream” or
business-to-business. As panelist Alloysius Attah shared, Farmerline
later decided to connect with organizations working with farmers rather
than farmers themselves.
A consumer segment that is not ready for your product is no reason to
give up. Rather, re-engage and explore what other parties and
consistencies in your market are connected to your direct consumer and
can make use of your product or service.
5. Young African leaders are willing to train and engage their generation and those coming after
Perhaps the best question that came from the audience was this: “What
packages do you or your company have for young Africans who want to
develop their skills and build their businesses?”.
While the panelists said they did not have “packages” available (to
which we all laughed), they all offered to provide opportunities for
YALI fellows to engage and learn from them. Many even said they would
open up internship opportunities for this cohort and others willing to
This is the great news! Though challenges abound in developing a
technology-enabled Africa, sharing resources, talent, and tools is one
way to leverage each other for maximum impact.
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