If you were asked to locate the forefront of mobile technology innovation on a world map, it is fair to assume a lot of people would opt for the highly concentrated technological community of Silicon Valley. However, the smart money may in fact wish to look elsewhere. Specifically, the fingers on the pulse of the global mobile revolution belong to Africa’s 1.2bn-strong population.
According to GSMA, the percentage of the African population subscribed to mobile services reached 46% by the end of 2015, with over half a billion unique users and 168 million more due to connect over the next three years. Compare that to the pre-telecoms era Nigeria of 1999, when just 500,000 people (0.04% of the population) were connected, and you start to get an idea of the rate of change.
That dramatic increase has brought about resourceful new ways of using this connectivity to address problems specific to African nations. The resulting innovation has produced ingenious solutions to economic, social, and political problems, as well as revolutionising the way business is done across the continent. From M-Pesa, a mobile banking transaction service now used for around 30 per cent of all payments in Kenya, to an SMS-driven service in Uganda skyrocketing the registration of newborn babies, to the key role social media played in recent general elections in Ghana, The Gambia and Nigeria, the list is long and is not about to stop growing. Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and there is no lack of either in the world’s second most populous continent.
“Africa is a work in progress… a construction site,” says Afolabi Imoukhuede, Senior Special Assistant to the Nigerian President on Job Creation/Youth Employment. “That is the African opportunity – to see that you will not find the classic Europe or American model where everything is prepared, but how can a business reap rewards from putting in some of that infrastructure.” In essence, the astounding rate of change has caused the continent as a whole “to leapfrog ahead of the infrastructure”, leading to problems, but also innovation and opportunity.
Of course, there are still eccentricities specific to kinks, as providers scramble to keep up with the population’s voracious demand. As Bukola Akingbade, CEO of Neukleos says, if you delve into an Nigerian woman’s handbag, you will find not one mobile phone, but two or three, along with a complex series of cables designed to deal with lack of power to keep devices charged. “In Africa,” she says, “one mobile phone is not enough.” And going without is not an option: “A mobile is not a luxury, it is important to survival, to economic existence in Africa.“
But despite the bumps in the road, the potential is as clear as it is wide-ranging. In terms of solving the evident problems that still affect many African countries, in terms of attracting investment from abroad, and in the struggle to address misconceptions about the continent from afar. Says Imoukhuede: “We must build our narrative, if we don’t do that, others will tell our narrative.”Akingbade, too, is upbeat about the collaborative prospects that the mobile revolution can drive: “Africa is growing, Africa is mobile, Africa is finding her voice. Africa needs us as well as she needs you.”
What do the stories of 1.2 billion people look like? Are they each unique? Distinguishable by each individual’s distinctive background, culture or language? One would imagine they would be. So why then does the popular narrative continue to portray an entire continent’s population as one homogeneous people, and so, one homogenous culture of business?
During Advertising Week Europe, a collection of tech, business and industry leaders from throughout Africa sat down to discuss why the African continent, and its many unique cultures, businesses and people, should no longer be looked by the rest of the world as a single story.
“Africa is a diverse, long stretch of people that runs from the south to the north,” said Nikiru Olumide-Ojo, Chief Marketing Officer for Stanbic IBTC. “But we do have passion in common. We have a passion to make a difference.”
Though the rest of the modern world has yet to fully immerse and familiarise itself with business and culture in African nations, Bosun Tijani, Co-Founder of Co-Creation Hub, said storytelling is the key to transcending those borders and better connecting different parts of the world. Thankfully, new technologies have made their way into the African continent, making the ability to tell the stories of people in Africa – their experiences, their cultures and their many differences – an increasingly less daunting task.
“What’s important is how nations can leverage technology to their own advantage, and to understand that you don’t need to have deep science,” said Tijani. “We’re beginning to create things the rest of the world can take advantage of. Now it’s a lot easier for people to generate content and consume, so that’s helping to shape the narrative globally about our continent.”
Olumide-Ojo echoed those sentiments, noting that some of the biggest exports to come from Africa are the stories and experiences of the people that live there.
“Are we telling enough of our stories? No we’re not. Stories are powerful, not just to be told, but so that they are tangible and are making a real life difference,” Olumide-Ojo said. “We need to be more deliberate about telling our own stories. We each should think about what content drives the narrative about Africa out to the rest of the world.”
Eruke Ideh-Ichofu, CEO of Alytera, credits living and working in the UK for developing her drive to better the connection with Africa and the rest of the world. Doing so, and in seeing what is possible in places like the UK, has forced her to question why the same can’t be possible in her home back in Nigeria.
“It’s not easy, but it’s possible because tech makes that possible. People back home are outward looking. They’re thinking, ‘I want it, I want to be a part of it.’ So I felt it was my responsibility to take [my experiences] back to Africa and help shape the narrative, help change the perception, help bring them up to speed with where the rest of the world is,” Ideh-Ichofu said. “Africa is coming of age because we’re taking it back and we’re stepping up.”
A key in changing the perception of Africa falls to the creative industries, says Qondisa Ngwenya, Owner at Octagon South Africa, and understanding that Africa shouldn’t be painted with a “broad brush.”
“When you put an advert in a program that’s splashed around the continent, you need to understand it’s got to be in four languages. It’s those kind of nuances that people need to understand,” Ngwenya said. “And still, you can’t just translate it from English to French or Portuguese, because it’s going to have a different meaning altogether in each place. It requires a new approach and a new set of spectacles.”
Asked what’s next for African business, the panelists agreed it will be the furthering and bettering of existing technologies to make systemic ties with businesses in other parts of the world, which as result, will hopefully peak the interest of international investors and bring business back to Africa.
“If you’re coming to Africa, it’s not just about business,” said Ideh-Ichofu. “It’s about creating a lasting environment that will help businesses thrive. It’s about making change, and they’ll reap rewards further down the line. The returns will speak for themselves.”