I’ve been on the road since late last month, and I am afraid this space has been left quite neglected. So if there are any remaining readers…heres to a comeback.
I had the chance to speak at TTI Vanguard early this month and my topic of discussion was Innovation in Africa[pdf pg 10 and 11]. I gave a brief overview of the tech landscape in Africa, and engaged mostly in conversations around what is happening now. Since then, the article ‘Inside Nairobi, the Next Palo Alto?’ by G. Pascal Zachary in the NY times became the 7th most emailed article in the NYT world business section, spurring some discussion around the theme of Innovation, ‘light tech’ and localization of technology in Kenya.
As we all know there is this persisting perception of Africa as this sort of backward mess. Ethan Zuckerman has been writing for a few years about ‘rebranding Africa’ and more recently he wrote about David Weinberger’s Ninja Gap. Do read the whole piece, the bit that is relevant to this post is in part…
Context matters, Galtung argues. If weâ??ve got a mental image of Africa as a backwards and technically retrograde place, weâ??re likely to miss stories about innovation in mobile commerce (see the lead story in issue 407â?¦) or success in venture capital. Galtungâ??s fifth maxim is closely linked to the idea of cognitive dissonance – itâ??s uncomfortable to attempt to resolve new information that conflicts with existing perceptions, beliefs and behaviors.
Well, its quite an experience to have an encounter with someone who clearly brings this cognitive dissonance to light…I wont go there though. Suffice to say Africa, we have a long way to go. The overarching meme about Africa is still one of poverty, corruption, despots, famine and stunning sunsets…yeah, you know. Oh perhaps the stunning sunsets meme is one I would totally agree to and actively propagate, but I digress.This is with no small thanks to foreign correspondents who cover African news with the aforementioned brushstrokes.
So, while we African bloggers and digerati wrestle with not quite so positive images of Africa, debate Aid Vs Trade, couple that with our current reality of immense potential that is muffled by worrisome politics, rising inflation, environmental degradation and many other factors; I am
trying to think of the bigger picture, a way to wrap my mind around things.
Years ago, my friends’ mom told me about a ‘bad-good-shot’. When you swing that golf club and you know that you missed the green by considerable measure, yet the ball hits a tree and deflects onto a reasonable section of the course, then you get to make a better than expected shot. There are some projects and tech that arise out of challenges like dearth of broadband, and in reaction to the bad choices our leaders make. In Africa, we get some of those really bad shots, sometimes, something good arises out it and perhaps we can position ourselves for a much better shot at prosperity. I do not know if we can, but we can definitely aspire to it.
I think TEDGlobal Arusha had started that rebranding process, by bringing to Africa a mix of intellectuals, scientists, technologists…you name it; to experience an alternate African reality of sorts. Last monday, I was reminded by Sean to not underestimate the value in bringing prospective investors to Africa, so they can have a different context, and perhaps get over that ‘cognitive dissonance’. As I look back to TEDGlobal, I remember that I was in awe of my fellow Africans, I was inspired by them, and felt that we had just gotten to the ‘jumping off point’. I am still inspired by their talks as they are released on TED.com. Well, December 30th 2007 came, when the meme of ‘Kenya’s potential’ suffered quite a blow. It will take awhile to rebuild that confidence in my mind, let alone the minds of others. I think other countries in Africa have a positive meme attached to them and boy, am I envious. My Ghanaian friends, please guard the positive meme of Ghana with all you’ve got. As a Kenyan, and also as an African I still believe that we can redefine/ we are redefining what it means to be African.
When it comes to markets and the potential in disruptive technology, I would strongly suggest you subscribe to Sean Park’s blog, and Bankelele’s too. These guys give you the meat and potatoes when it comes to evaluating not only the economics but the potential in mobile banking and other sectors of African/Kenyan economies. Because aspirations are well, good and awesome (really!), but at the end of the day, fundamentals of investing should always be rock solid.
So there is the perception problem, but that can be tackled by hard data. Speaking of market data, AfriMonitor launched earlier this month.
It will be a great resource as the bid to rebrand Africa continues. Various conferences will be happening throughout the year, and will be invaluable in bringing together many of you who see this alternate African technological reality. I am still bummed that I did not make it to Barcamp Nairobi in June, but I am making every effort to make sure I do not miss the next one. Last but not least, I just want to salute Wilfred Mworia, all the geeks and volunteers at Ushahidi, Josiah Mugambi, Dorcas Muthoni of Linux chix Africa, Riyaz, all the Skunkworks geeks, Kasahorow crew, JAB, techies in Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and other African countries. Here is to not just the next Palo Alto, but the next Nairobi, Accra, Abuja, Capetown, Johannesburg, Lusaka etc.