From Madagascar to Liberia, Africa’s “digital lions” are preparing to roar, speakers said at an event co-organized by UNCTAD, the Alibaba Business School and the Jack Ma Foundation at South Africa’s Wits University on 8 August.
The day-long e-commerce and technology event featured an announcement by Jack Ma, co-founder and executive chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, of a $10 million prize fund for African internet entrepreneurs, to be known as the African Netpreneur Prize.
“Let’s make Africa a digital Africa,” Mr. Ma said at the event, dubbed Netpreneurs: The Rise of Africa’s Digital Lions.
Mr. Ma, who currently serves as UNCTAD special adviser for young entrepreneurs and small business, said he always believed that “when everything is ready it’s always too late” for entrepreneurs. Their role is to create the conditions to prosper, not wait for them.
Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said by video that he would sit on the African Netpreneur Prize advisory board.
“All young Africans should seize the opportunity to aim high,” Mr. Ban said. “Put your best foot forward and I look forward to your application to the African Netpreneur Prize.”
Around 30 African graduates of the eFounders Fellowship Programme, launched in 2017 and run by UNCTAD and the Alibaba Business School, also attended the event.
“Those of us from Africa, and friends of Africa, are facing the challenge of how to convert the young talents emerging in Africa into a dividend and not a curse,” UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi said.
“As everyone keeps telling them ‘go and make employment for yourself,’ how can we make it possible for them to create employment?” he said.
“Since last year, UNCTAD and Alibaba have been recruiting a number of young net entrepreneurs and sending them to Alibaba Business School in Hangzhou, China, for a short intense training on the possibilities on electronic market platforms, gaining visibility on the global market through remote technology and liberating small-scale producers through a conscious, purposeful impact investment in linking them to the electronic market.”
Dr. Kituyi described these eFounders fellows as the start of “an army of impatient entrepreneurs” that will ignite a digital revolution in Africa.
Kenyan eFounder fellow Catherine Mahugu described her journey as a technology professional and entrepreneur. After her encounter with Alibaba in Hangzhou she founded an e-commerce coffee export firm.
Another, Nigerian eFounder fellow Adetayo Bamidura, founded MAX, a platform that uses mobile apps to connect businesses and commuters to safe and affordable motorcycle-taxis on demand.
South Africa’s science and technology minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said “innovation coupled with entrepreneurship is the engine of growth of any modern economy”.
“The emerging fourth industrial revolution, which will affect and change the whole world, demands that we invest in information and communication technology infrastructure – otherwise we will be spectators of this revolution and not active participants,” she said.
Wits University acting vice chancellor Tawana Kupe asked “Where is Africa in the fourth industrial revolution?”
Three panel discussions were held in answer, the first on how governments and policymakers can nurture innovation in the digital economy.
Botswana’s investment, trade and industry minister Bogolo Kenewendo said the “last mile” of internet infrastructure was often the hardest in Africa, but “policy infrastructure” in terms of laws, regulations and government awareness of the issues was at least as important.
South African economist Miriam Altman agreed, and said that digital infrastructure was often seen by African governments as “something extra” on top of traditional infrastructure needs like water and electricity.
University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor and principal Tshilidzi Marwala added that he thought governments should make provision for free Wi-Fi, as well as “virtual economic zones” to spur investment.
“I have to be honest, the digital economy concept has been so slow to catch on in governments,” Ms. Kenewendo said.
This included in “soft” policy areas like education as well as in “hard” infrastructure like broadband, she said.
For Ms. Altman, “kids get it,” but “institutions often don’t.”
She said that basic standard-setting and building a digital infrastructure was incumbent on governments – not just in Africa – and e-commerce would flow from that.
Ms. Kenewondo said that young digitally-aware Africans should not afraid to be disruptors because “what we have now clearly isn’t working for us”.
“I encourage you to throw away your caution,” she said.
Panellists agreed that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was a welcome step toward freer regional circulation of goods, but much work remained to be done on transport logistics and connectivity.
Investing in talent
A second panel addressed access to capital and investment.
Mara Corporation founder Ashish J. Thakkar said that with M-Pesa, Kenya’s mobile money system, covering 98% of that country’s GDP, Africa had proved that it could develop, use and exploit new technologies.
AfricInvest venture capital director Selma Ribica said that M-Pesa’s success, and that of Nigerian ecommerce giant Jumia and others, was itself a spur to investment capital and now it was pouring in – to the tune of $500 million in 2017.
However, she cautioned, so far this flow of investment was unevenly distributed in a few sectors and mostly to just three African countries: Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa.
IFC Venture Capital’s Africa head Wale Ayeni said that “angel investing” was in its infancy in Africa but this was changing.
A third panel considered skills gaps and employment for young people.
Wambui Kinya, chief strategy officer of Andela, a full-service tech talent agency which spots, trains and places African developers and other technology professionals, urged businesses in Africa not to look outside the continent for their technology service needs.
“Africa has the tech talent they need,” she said.
Hubs and ecosystems
Mr. Kupe said Wits University had launched a digital innovation hub five years ago in partnership with the private sector with students working in areas as diverse as fintech, health and gaming.
“Our challenge is to make digital life the ‘new normal’,” Mr. Kupe said of his university’s commitment to future-forward education. “We must change our mindset.”
Anna Ekeledo, executive director of AfriLabs, a community of 100 innovation hubs in 30 African countries aiming to build technical and entrepreneurial skills and engage in policy advocacy, said that the linkage between academia and innovation hubs needs to be strengthened.
She said she was looking forward to scaling businesses as a result of trade reforms under AfCFTA, and other ways of turbocharging the “enabling environment for digital ecosystems”.
As well as the panellists, eFounders fellows, students, other participants and dignitaries, the event was also attended by UN Women’s executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and China’s ambassador to South Africa, Lin Songtian.