The past few weeks provided me a rare chance to listen to a different view about investment and innovation on the African continent. I wish to share that through this short article.
Clearly, the continent is an emerging market, which has a golden opportunity to tap into the strong global sentiment of goodwill about its chances. At present, the universe is conspiring with us, a lot seems to be going right. In general the numbers are conducive for growth. There is a growing population exceeding one billion, relative stability in many countries, a growing middle class and a massive adoption of technologies, improvements in infrastructure and a strong extraction industry, among other positive factors.
The fastest way for countries or for that matter a continent, to grow and catch-up is to adopt and adapt innovations from countries that already have them. This enables it to leap-frog the long and sometimes costly processes of research and discovery. There must also be a strong sense of solving local problems. So, Africa can do the same. The question is how Africa can do it. One way to make that easy is to have policies that encourage the flow of capital, ideas and investment onto the continent.
During the past few weeks, I had a golden chance to be in workshops, seminars and company visits arranged by the Yale World Fellows Program at Yale. These included a visit to IBM’s innovation Centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts; seminars at the Yale Centre of Engineering Innovation and Design (CEID); workshops facilitated by IBM and Barclays, presentations from tech entrepreneurs like John Gosier (Appfrica), Nikhil Patel (Mi Fone), Asifi Gogo (Sproxil) and by venture capitalists (Tokunboh Ishmael) and Shuaib Siddiqui (Acumen). I also had a chance to visit an innovation hub in New Haven, Connecticut, where start-up companies share infrastructure, resources and ideas.
What is clear is that, going forward, small and large firms with global expansion plans value the opportunities in Africa, and see a compelling case for investing their resources in the form intellectual and financial capital on the continent. However, there is a proviso. The investment climate, national policies, a sense of purpose and vision, actually catalyse the process of creating an ecosystem that helps both local firms and some global entities to choose a destination for their investments.
What is clear is also clear from this experience is that from a technology perspective the greatest focus is on specific countries that have a very conducive environment for innovation and creating solutions that solve African challenges. Leading that pack is Kenya, which has a technology policy that has received much media attention. Readers may have heard of Kenya’s plan to develop a Silicon Savannah. This demonstrates a desire to develop tech friendly policies and build a conducive ecosystem. On its part, IBM has a research centre in Nairobi, and will have its famed IBM Watson – first cognitive computer – there.
Other countries also receiving the attention of global tech companies, venture capitalists and other investors are Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and, to some extent, Rwanda.
An environment that engenders tech innovation is man-made. It’s not driven by nature or geography or position of a country. The trouble with investment waves across regions is that when they come, you have to be ready and have an ecosystem prepared to take full advantage of them. Failure to do so leaves a country picking the crumps from the technology spill-over table.
So the big question is: Is Zimbabwe ready for this focus on the continent? My assessment is that it is not. It is not because
- Zimbabwe is yet to develop a well-coordinated innovation and tech policy to create a thriving environment for tech companies. There is no viable ecosystem for tech entrepreneurs. If it’s absent for tech entrepreneurs, then what does that mean for global firms?
- There is room for improvement on the investment climate overall.
- The coordination between the ministries that are responsible for creating this environment is suboptimal at present. These include the ministries of ICT, Industry and Commerce and that of Finance. There are many other factors that are important and must be considered at the national level.
What is clear is that Zimbabwe’s national development policy doesn’t create an environment as good as that of other African countries to take advantage of the movement of investment in technology in Africa. So what’s the point of this article? The point is, Zimbabwe will miss the current wave of investment in tech and innovation in Africa, unless we urgently address key bottlenecks relating to policy and creating a viable tech ecosystem. If we don’t, the country will miss the boat. The first point in dealing with a problem is in actually realising that there is one. Then next step is how we fix it. These two steps need to be dealt with urgently.
image course: zimbabwe.com