A few days after the Queen of England commissioned the BBC headquarters in London, the Africa Gathering team has the opportunity to host its 5th event there. At this event I had the opportunity to present to the audience my thoughts on the rising African tech scene. On the first day of the event which was a Friday, I put on my team member hat and assisted the social media desk by reporting the happening and findings via the hash-tag #AG2013. Through this, I got the opportunity to learn and share with the many other learned entrepreneurs, policy-makers , managers and students. When people in my network hear about Africa Gathering events in London, they are quick to ask why such events are not hosted on the African continent. To such questions I usually have two responses. There have been a few Africa Gathering events in Africa, some I have been privileged to be a part of. But my second response is usually 1st punch. Africa is not necessarily the landmass, but the people, who may or may not be on the continent. There is a good part of Africa’s intestines scattered all over the globe. The Africa Gathering team has made it a point to come up with relevant themes which will interest such African communities which resident abroad.
On the second day I presented what I saw to be the rather true state of the African tech scene. Unravelling the apparent challenges in the industry and presented those challenges as opportunities to the interested audience. Some of the hurdles I mentioned were the absence of a seamless and convenient electronic or mobile platform (of course I had to make an exception for East-Africa which has found consolation in mPesa). Unfortunately mPesa might not be replicated again anywhere else in Africa because of the circumstances leading to its discovery. I was not shocked when I asked how many people in the crowd had purchased anything in Africa and had paid electronically. Some of the responses which came my way included Visa (Which is not an indigenous solution and not too many people on the continent have access to it anyways), Paypal (Which has blacklisted a good number of African nations from gaining access), MTN Mobile Money (Which requires you to go out to top-up your wallet and the receiving merchant needs to have an account else the transaction becomes more cumbersome). If you are reading this and you’ve used any payment platform which presents its users with convenience and a seamless process, I’d be more than happy to hear from you. Do share.
The challenge above has made it more difficult for Tech Entrepreneurs to make millions from Business to Consumer Apps, so most players in this space focus on the enterprise as the paying customer. If only a mobile user could download an app and pay for it via mobile or any other electronic means, we’d have more millionaires in this space. Let me not steer away from documenting my presentation at Africa Gathering. I also mentioned the lack of talent in this space. In this case, I can’t speak for the rest of Africa, but most of our Academic institutions in Ghana, lack the capacity to fully train their students in computer engineering. Most of the students pick the basics from school and sharpen the skills on their own. This has created a scarcity of engineers for various project. It’s something my company still struggles with.The good engineers are hard to find, and when found, maintaining them is a bigger challenge because someone else wants them too! It may be wise at this point to introduce ICT studies and software development at an early stage. But the question is, how many of our school can go down this path? Especially in an era where pupils learn the parts of a computer on a black board and the biggest and most prestigious high schools in Ghana can only boast of a 1000:40 Student to computer ratio.
Lastly I mentioned the lack of access to support networks, be it expertise, mentor-ship or financial support. My partners and I were lucky to have been a part of the Meltwater Foundation’s MEST programme, thus accessing seed capital was not as hectic as it is for others. I have spoken to many entrepreneurs and most of them recount the difficulty involved in getting capital especially for IT ventures. For the banks it’s an uncomfortable space, so most of them stay away from it, and even if you are lucky to get a loan from the banks, expect to pay not less than 20% as interest! It would be nice to see more of the support channels available in the US and UK, here in some African countries. I say some because not every country has shown it has communities which are interested pursuing tech entrepreneurship.
My idea for highlighting the above was not to present Africa in bad light, but rather an attempt to present the challenges as opportunities to whoever was listening. And was also a stab at the many reports painting Africa as a place with fast and reliable internet (if you’ve been here before, you know that is NOT true), good environment for starting businesses etc. Such half-truths make me bleed, and makes me question which parts of the continent they are reporting from. Africa is not a dungeon, but neither is it a Gold Palace. It is a challenging environment, no doubt, but many people have overcome these challenges and intend to solve the problems we face…running away from these challenges will not make them go away!
You can watch the event on Livestream.