Part III: How “SMAC” Technology is Transforming the African Continent

This is the last in a three-part series on how Social, Mobile, Analytic, and Cloud (SMAC) technology is transforming the African continent. Read Part I & II here. 

This month, one of the greatest human beings the world has ever known passed away.  His departure has yielded an outpouring of both grief and gratitude for the legacy he has left, not just for South Africa, but for the world.

Nelson Mandela, or Madiba as he is known to many, spent the prime years of his life imprisoned, patiently waiting for the right moment to negotiate his release. With patience, diligence, and humility, he worked tirelessly for gradual and peaceful change. While South Africa has suffered its fair share of political struggles since the end of apartheid in 1994, Madiba’s patience for gradual change and his relentless compassion for even the most antagonistic oppressor paved the way for South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy.

It was with great eagerness that Mandela witnessed the wave of technical innovation that has begun to emerge across the entire continent of Africa over the past two decades.

Across the African continent, the rapid proliferation of increasingly advanced mobile technology—both phones and tablets—has connected people across borders and geographies like never before. In referring to it as one entity, many often forget that Africa is actually a patchwork of countries, within which exist many different nationalities, tribes, languages, religion, and political legacies. It has already become evident that innovation has found footholds in unexpected corners of the continent, including Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and Botswana, not to mention, of course, South Africa. Mobile phones have spawned the creation of mobile money transfer portals and a growing number of professionals across Africa are seeking technical credentials to respond to public demand for mobile apps and other tech infrastructure.

In turn, a growing number of organizations and institutions have turned their attention to the power of analytics. Organizations like Senegal’s Directorate of Analysis and Forecasting of Agricultural Statistics are seeking ways to improve their analytical foundation in ways that will enhance their efficiency and impact.

Many analytics tools designed in Silicon Valley are cloud-based solutions. Yet, in Africa, even as public fascination with “the cloud” continues to grow, a number of factors constrain the proliferation of cloud-based technologies.  Weak and erratic broadband internet access is the most significant limiting factor. Limited connectivity—combined with the fact that smartphones are far from mainstream—also limits the market penetration of mainstream social media channels, like Twitter and LinkedIn. These limitations make it difficult for a great number of people, especially those in more rural areas, to gain access to the cutting edge solutions that are quickly becoming mainstream in more developed parts of the world.

Africa’s Educational Legacy

Unfortunately, human capital is a limiting factor, too. In the 19th century, the idea that history was made by a few great men gained great prominence. Across Africa, a few good men and women continue through force of will, birthright, or chance, to change the fate of their nations. Nelson Mandela is chief among them, who, even after his passing continues to remind future leaders to embrace the same compassion he has always championed.

Mandela believed that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Yet, South Africa and other African nations have struggled to live up to Mandela’s call to action. Many universities in Africa lag behind those in the United States and other more developed countries.

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Even as new educational approaches like Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, disrupt the educational legacy of the United States and Europe, the absence of a more rigorous academic foundation jeopardizes the future of many Africans. In reality, university education in many African countries is insufficient for graduates to develop the technical and business acumen needed to devise and lead game-changing initiatives. Some programs, such as the African Management Initiative, seek to overcome these gaps, but there is still a long way to go.

Limits on technical skills are perpetuated both by lack of access and pedagogy. Many universities, largely for financial reasons, struggle to provide their students with access to the most cutting-edge IT platforms. As a result, many students graduate with a foundation in programs that are already out of date.

Of course, this issue is not specific only to Africa. Many universities in the US and in Europe are similarly struggling to keep up with the rapid rate of change driving technological innovation worldwide. Everywhere in the world, technologies are evolving faster than human technical competency. The greatest difference for Africa is the economic disadvantage—most platforms developed in Silicon Valley are priced in dollars, pricing out a great deal of the rest of the world.

Many universities, built on the legacy of European institutions, teach most subjects by rote and memorization; few create opportunities for students to develop their professional abilities through hands-on learning. Today, students with degrees in IT and computer engineering must depend on new organizations such as Coders4Africa for applied learning opportunities. A pan-African organization, Coders4Africa creates post-graduate environments in which new IT and computer science graduates have an opportunity to enhance their technical skills by developing solutions to non-profit client challenges pro bono, applying what they have learned in school.

In recent years, new enterprise and micro-finance have been popular tools by which to end poverty in many emerging African economies. Resources like SME Toolkit—a collaboration between IBM and and IFC, the private sector arm of the World Bank—seek to provide entrepreneurs around the world with the tools to start and successfully run their own businesses. The Toolkit provides sophisticated yet simple and practical guidance once only available to large companies—providing, for example, templates for legal, accounting and marketing operations. Public research institutes like ITA provide readily available technology (the manual variety) around which to build new enterprises. Yet, many African countries lack a strong culture of entrepreneurship. During my time in Senegal this fall, many Senegalese commented that their compatriots “spend a lot of time talking and not much time getting things done.”

This trend is not unique to Senegal, and stems directly from the country’s educational and governance legacy. Learning through memorization encourages a risk-averse culture in which there is only one right answer, biased against experimentation. Starting a new business requires that an entrepreneur accepts the possibility of failure which, within this cultural construct, is difficult to do.  Many would-be entrepreneurs in these countries fall prey to their risk-averse culture, and never begin at all.

Moreover, as Jim Collins acknowledge in Good to Great, “Technology by itself is never a primary root cause of either greatness or decline.” Technology is aiding innovative transformation across Africa, but technology is only an implement to be utilized by humankind. It is dependent on human capital to effect results.

Innovation or Transformation?

Many African nations are prepared to seize the latest technologies as soon as they become available and affordable. This fall, the Directorate of Analysis and Predictive Statistics in Senegal’s Ministry of Agriculture initiated a new IT infrastructure development process that will replace a manual CSPro entry process with tablets and Mongo DB. For all the obstacles, across Africa, technological innovation is steady and real.

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One effective way to bridge the human capital gap is for multinational companies to contribute the skills of their top talent through pro bono service that enriches local capacity. Programs like IBM’s Corporate Service Corps is one example of this approach. By showing would-be entrepreneurs how to craft new approaches to previously intractable problems, global professionals mitigate risk and provide an example of what successful businessmen and women can achieve when they initiate new ventures.

What’s more, Mandela’s words encourage companies to take up this fight:

A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dream of.”

Leaders across Africa must embrace the opportunity to follow in Mandela’s footsteps, reaching across borders, cultures, and languages to share resources and ideas, to leverage rapidly evolving technology and a growing innovative spirit to make the world that better place.

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