I am conflicted by how Africans perceive Africa. Many times, as Africans we complain about how (especially) western media treat Africa as if it is one big country. Often some non-Africans refer to Africa as a country, when instead it is a hugely diverse continent comprised of 54 independent nations. But wait. I have been to many conferences in Africa where many presenters (academics, industry captains and public leaders) compare developments in Africa to other emerging countries, as if Africa is one big country. The four countries that African experts economic experts like to compare Africa to are Brazil, China, South Korea and Singapore. They seem to suggest that Africa can learn from the successes of these countries. It seems these leaders, when they refer to Africa in this context, seem to forget the singularity and sovereignty of 54 countries with independent economic systems and in most cases different cultures. Yes. Different cultures. When I lived in Europe I was often invited to speak at events on African culture. The assumption was that the continent was one big geographical space with one culture. In my interaction, I would remind them that the dissimilarities among African cultures are at least as significant as the similarities. The image we have of a society affects the way we think and the way we attempt to solve problems. Unfortunately, many African innovators seem to suffer the same dilemma as I do. On one hand, they are reminded of the challenges in the continent and how they contribute to inhibiting creativity and innovation. Sadly, many seem to have bought into this perception of hopelessness – seeing only what they are conditioned to see. On the other hand, many Africans, though born and raised in Africa, are not remotely conscious of African cultures – except the most obvious – food, music, clothing and dance. Often we tell our young African innovators to think outside the box, but we don’t teach them enough about the box outside of which they are expected to think.
My Africa is not poor!
My Africa has all these challenges, but I also like my Africa (and hopefully yours as well) to be a continent of opportunities, a continent of growth and prosperity powered by creativity and innovations. The Africa I see is one domestic market with over 1.2 billion people. Think about it for a moment. The second-largest continent. What if innovators will see Africa as one domestic market within which new technologies, products and services can be produced and consumed? As individual countries, resources are limited, and the market sizes are too small to recoup investments in innovations.
My Africa is not poor. It is indeed a rich continent. Maybe not as wealthy as we would have hoped to be. Maybe we have not been able to create wealth as fast as other regions of the world. What appears to make it worse is that we have all it takes to be wealthy. Indeed, it is true that Africa has weaker institutions than especially the western world. We don’t have the infrastructure in the form of highways, energy, portable water as most parts of the world do. We do not have as many doctors, access to education and access to the internet as the rest of the world does.
My Africa is not cursed by natural resources as most will want us to believe. Resources don’t curse anyone.
My Africa is not cursed
My Africa is not cursed by natural resources as most will want us to believe. Resources don’t curse anyone. Oil, gold, diamond and a whole list of natural resources abundant in Africa do not curse Africa. Indeed, they provide opportunities to create industries around them. Taking advantage of these resources require developing technological solutions that help exploit these locally. Unfortunately, the approach has been to export these resources in raw forms or to add value locally for domestic consumption or export. So far, in my research, I have not identified any country in the world that has transformed by adding value to natural resources. What these countries have done is to build technological capabilities around the resource usually domestically and then proceed to exploit this on the international market. Take Finland for example. The country has an abundance of timber, but Finland did not transform by exporting raw timber or adding value alone. Finland went further by creating machinery for processing wood. With this approach, the country became a world leader in pulp and paper machinery and industry. The knowledge and skills gained in this industry were later transferred to other sectors of society. We need African innovators to help create these technologies that will make our countries technologically competitive where we are resource endowed.
My Africa has a Secret Weapon -the YoutAfrica currently has the youngest population in the world. It is estimated that 41% of Africans are under 15 years old while another 19% is below 24 years old. Think about this again for a moment. Over 60% of Africa’s population is below 24 years old. If we can see the youth as a future resource that indeed is a huge opportunity. The opportunity does not lie only in the numbers. Africa has bright young men and women within and outside formal employment, full of creative ideas, bursting to develop themselves, institutions and country. Young men and women who can make the dream of a developed Africa for all Africans possible. These young men and women who have done everything we asked them to do right and yet cannot find decent jobs, can’t bring their creative inventions to commercial use or can’t bring their start-ups out of the starting grid. But they keep pushing. We need to support them to turn their dreams into reality. We need to create a future-looking vision that ignites and supports new ideas to tackle social and economic challenges in Africa by innovating one idea at a time. The support we give them, will go a long way to enhance the deployment of home-grown technologies in Africa. Strengthening the innovative capacity of the youth, deepening the institutional linkages in the innovation ecosystem and boosting private sector participation in the innovation process will have the combined effect of accelerating the commercialization process of innovations made in Africa.
Global Catastrophe – A new Opportunity
Historically, advancements in technology have been catapulted by global catastrophes – notably the two World Wars. World Wars I and II played important roles in the advancement of science, technology and engineering globally. New technologies that were developed as part of the war and later found civilian commercial applications. One could argue that could Africa’s and lack of (direct ) participation in both World Wars explain the science, technology and engineering gap with the rest of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic is the first global catastrophe that Africa is involved in. The pandemic occurred at a time when the world was bullish about economic development in Africa. Before the pandemic, most African countries were on a positive trajectory towards sustaining gains in economic growth that they had enjoyed over the last decade. Beyond the direct impact on health and healthcare delivery systems, the pandemic has also affected the global supply chain on which Africa depends on technology and product imports. So far, Africa has avoided the doomsday scenario predicted by many, and I do hope it stays that way.
What’s your Africa?
Going forward, It is my hope that each of us begins to create our own mental image of Africa, an image based on hope and opportunities, even as we continue to be recognize the challenges that still exist on the continent. Africa is a vast continent with great variety. Africa can be seen differently through different lenses. It is important that you can create your sense of Africa, what I call the landscape or the context within which you intend to create that new product or service. Context matters. Context affects the way we see the world around us, the way we think, the way we communicate and the way we act. All these feed into how successful you are as an innovator.