Why Africa Is a Nascent Innovation Powerhouse

Africa is a nascent innovation powerhouse

Africa [credit: Mapswire.com]

Africa is a nascent innovation powerhouse, and its leadership will become increasingly obvious during the coming decades, but the seeds are already visible as this post reveals: Africa’s population is exploding, and its young people are adopting tech alternatives to countries’ long-insufficient health, education, and financial infrastructure.

If you’ve been interested in international development for long, you have seen many prognostications about “Africa rising” over the years only to see them fade into oblivion. Predicting profound economic shifts is like predicting earthquakes; you study the driving forces and your algorithms crunch the data.

That isn’t stopping Helga Stegmann. She has led “user experience” agency Mantaray since 2006, and she gave a riveting talk last week in Chicago hosted by partner agency BoldInsight. In my experience, user experience folks rarely have their hands on the pulse of disruptive economic change, but the reason she is an exception reflects that Africa’s economic transformation is happening at the grassroots level (as with most revolutions), and her key orientation is user experience design, so researching users across rapidly evolving interfaces in devices. Follow along with my notes of her remarks and my additional reflections to reframe your ideas about Africa as bastion of innovation and economic growth.

Overview

Having been in the futurist camp professionally since the 2000s and a participant of what used to be called “globalization” since the 1980s, I’ve read a lot of papers and seen how theories have unfolded since the 1980s. And one principle I’ve learned to respect when thinking about future economic prospects is that demographics rarely steer one wrong. Consider these:

  • Africa will double in population by 2050.
  • Africa is by far the youngest continent in the world.
  • Six of the ten fastest growing countries are in Africa.
  • Africa will have the world’s largest workforce by 2035, although most jobs that people will do don’t exist yet.
  • Africans don’t depend on jobs; most have 3-4 side hustles to make extra money. People are ingenious at inventing ways to make money. The culture of entrepreneurialism is exceptional.
  • [mobile] Data is very expensive in Africa. Most people pay 25% of their salaries for data. Connected smartphones don’t make sense.
  • Africans use texting and feature phones in creative ways to conduct their businesses and lives.

As in other countries, healthcare, education, finance, and food/agriculture are pockets of innovation.

Healthcare

  • AIDS is still a huge problem. It has a huge stigma in Africa, so people go to great lengths to hide the fact they have it from family, neighbors, relatives. This interferes with treatment.
  • Doctors are so scarce that few people see the same one twice. This creates incredible inefficiency with treatment; people have to brief the new doctor on their disease each time they see him/her. Digitization of records would be breakthrough [and it is coming in pockets].
  • Consumer-like devices like fitbits for AIDS treatments would help millions of people and scale medical advice and guidance.

Education

  • Education is rare and barely available to most Africans. MOOCs and online solutions are exploding; people are very motivated to learn, so they are pioneering in agile education. They will leapfrog “developed” countries whose educational infrastructure is still grounded in the 20th century.
  • UX (user experience) is very popular; apps change people’s lives, but these apps must be developed to accommodate the infrastructure in Africa, and people are doing it. People teach each other.
  • Augmented learning is one innovation. Students get assignments and have to figure them out on their own; there are teachers to help them when they get stuck. Education is long on solutions and short on theory.
  • Peer to peer coding [and teaching] is huge. Many young people don’t like [old] teachers [because their thought processes are so different].
  • Nanoskilling is another African innovation. People quickly learn to solve discrete pain points. They earn money this way.

Finance

  • Cryptocurrency is huuuge in Africa. Africans don’t trust banks. They don’t see why they should pay banks to keep their money there or pay to withdraw it. Traditional banking fees make no sense to them.
  • Wala and others are revolutionary.
  • Africa is “China’s new China.” China is investing heavily and buying assets aggressively. Governments own large portions of land in many countries and sell to Chinese mining interests. There is the risk of re-appropriation because people feel it’s unfair.

Social

  • Most Africans like farming to grow their own food; they like self-sufficiency [and don’t trust large systems/government]. Subsistence farming is enabled by apps, i.e. tractor-as-a-service.
  • People often save through other people, spread their money around. They keep one quarter of their salary and give one quarter each to three other people in their community. They avoid losing or spending all their money. And everyone is honest because word spreads fast if someone is a cheat.
  • So-called public works are being transformed. Africans use Ushahidi-like apps to report potholes, for example. Once listed, people bid on repairing it. They get paid when a certain level of other people document successful repair.
  • Youth will transform Africa. They are intolerant of corruption and believe in the ideals of their heroes like the Mandelas.

Reflections: Africa Is a Nascent Innovation Powerhouse

Overall, Helga’s remarks were on the money. Here are a few of my observations that can serve to identify some megatrends and extend her ideas.

  • So-called developed countries are marked by physical and social infrastructure that was built in the 19th and 20th centuries: physical infrastructure like roads, bridges, utilities; education/training in the form of school and vocational systems; healthcare systems; financial systems. All these are marked by long-cycle development, complexity, brittleness, and cost.
  • “Agile” development and management seeks to reform these infrastructures, but it is barely scratching the surface. Africans will leapfrog the world because they are building natively networked light infrastructures.
  • Media and social media provide Africans with visions of vastly different lives. In many African countries, local communities are very strong. This corresponds to the social infrastructure that humans have always had, but infrastructure that advanced countries have largely lost. As I have noted for years, humans’ natural habitat is the town, and before that, the tribe.

However, the most breakthrough reason that we should all watch and participate in Africa’s transformation is more ominous…

  • As a digital ethnographer, my observation of people and their behavior patterns is constant, and I’ve long noted how dependent people in developed countries are on systems and infrastructure to live. People can’t cook, walk, read a map, or climb the stairs, and apps usurp skills and knowledge. At the same time, the likelihood is very high that the old infrastructure systems will break down due to environmental and financial disruptions. Africans are resilient and ingenious where people in “developed” countries are dependent on their systems. My crystal ball says that the likelihood of widespread, profound disruption of social and business structures is high.
  • In many African countries, micro-community cohesion is high, and this can serve to help people innovate collectively.

Africans’ resilience will enable them to thrive amidst disruption. In fact, nested within the word “disruption” is existing social/business systems. Most Africans are used to spotty infrastructure and corrupt governments.

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