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The Future Is African

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Gillmor Gang: Check Please

This is a call to action for the dreamers of the world.

Imagine being in a market where more people live in a high-speed mobile Internet zone than have electricity. Where farmers with $50 Android 5.0 smartphones use WhatsApp to joke with their friends on one thread and confirm market prices for cassava on another. And data for one dollar per gigabyte is used to spread viral videos through villages of women singing Michael Jackson.

The art of the possible would be different in places like this. The innovative thinking that has defined the world’s best entrepreneurs would be able to create services that don’t exist today that would empower these users. This world doesn’t need imagining — there are many places like this in Sub-Saharan Africa today.

Something magical is happening in the poorest countries of the world. With smartphone prices plummeting, with ever-affordable, and fast, mobile data and with increasingly user-friendly services, tech has taken off in Africa.

On the other hand, outside of a few dreams of drones and balloons, the tech industry hasn’t really looked at Africa as an area of opportunity. This is a place to give aid, not a place to make money.

This is foolish; Africa is the fastest-growing economic and population region of the world. An influential study from UNICEF projects Sub-Saharan Africa to have a population boom from today’s 900 million people to 2.4 billion by 2050, with almost half of the world’s children being on the continent by 2100.

Couple this with an underlying growth rate of just 2 percent in the United States, a Europe that could only dream of such a number and a China that has already peaked in labor force population. Is it any wonder where the future of the world lies? As UNICEF reports, “The future of humanity is increasingly African.”

Outside of a few dreams of drones and balloons, the tech industry hasn’t really looked at Africa as an area of opportunity.

Why aren’t innovative projects sprouting to take advantage of this opportunity? The answer is that there are already seeds in the ground. Forums like East Africa’s PIVOT East showcase a startup culture that would be instantly recognizable to any Silicon Valley veteran.

However, seeds are not enough. The greater problem is that there is not yet critical mass in having the right mixture of dreamers, builders, money and support that let innovative businesses sincerely disrupt Africa.

WhatsApp and Facebook show that disruption is possible. But almost every single product that Western tech companies target in the developing world are developed in American or European startup hubs — by developers who have never heard of a boda boda, used Internet in the absence of electricity or had a user-experience case study that includes an illiterate farmer.

The biggest gap is from the builders and the dreamers. Until the world’s best and brightest decide to stay in Africa, instead of ignore it or flee it, there will be little headway in creating a tech ecosystem that innovatively confronts the opportunities and challenges of the continent — because no one understands them.

You can only solve the problems you understand. If you look out the window and see San Jose, you will solve problems for the people of San Jose. If you look out the window and see Kigali, you will solve problems for the people of Kigali.

So why is this a call to action? Are you a dreamer? Are you a builder? Don’t build the next WhatsApp in America, come to Africa.

If you want money, it will be here for the pioneers who unlock the mysteries of success. If you want to have positive impact, the people here are the poorest in the world, and can benefit the most from innovative products. If you want to build something beautiful, you will be operating on a blank canvas, building in a green field that doesn’t have to compromise with legacy systems or legacy thinking.

The challenges are huge, just as they were for America’s forefathers who decided to leave an atrophied Europe in the hope of a brighter future. Access to capital (or lack thereof), shoddy infrastructure, rampant corruption and overbearing bureaucracy all present huge headwinds that should intimidate any entrepreneur.

However, places like Kigali, with its strong rule of law, ease of doing business and ICT entrepreneur visa can be a test kitchen where startups can launch, iterate, then scale into larger markets.

We are looking into an African future. This can be a future full of missed opportunities, with mass unemployment and continuing failure for the poorest countries to give their people the opportunities the West takes for granted.

However, it also can provide opportunity, a place where innovative ideas for huge markets that have high impact can thrive and conquer. The choice is not passive. Africa needs ICT pioneers who will be a critical determinant in choosing which future it sails toward.

Featured Image: Alex Niragira/Flickr UNDER A CC BY-ND 2.0 LICENSE