Which continent is most likely to produce the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?
D) South America
Gold star if you answered Africa. Here’s how the motherland is primed to produce a continent full of millionaires, and how Black entrepreneurs can get in on it.
Africa’s Technological Potential
According to the Media Club of South Africa, the continent “has enormous potential for growth as it has become the fastest growing telecoms market in the world. Between 2001 and 2007 the industry grew by 49.3% with a total investment of US$18-billion”. Broadband internet access has been a problem for the continent since the Internet came into existence, but all that is about to change.
The huge undersea fiber-optic cables that give us fast internet connections in the United States, India, Europe and Japan are coming to Africa. This will bring BILLIONS of people online, and will spark a whole new tech boom. Wireless internet connections, business to business collaboration, web development, e-Commerce, m-Commerce, and a whole host of other web-based sectors are primed to explode.
Check out this report, The Potential of E-Commerce for the Expansion of Intra-West African Trade available here for download This report will give you a better idea of whats going on.
America, Europe, and China have already made note of Africa’s technological potential. American startups, large British corporations, and Chinese mining and drilling operations have started to pop up from Dakar to Mombasa as part of a new colonial gold rush. Take this excerpt from British GQ Magazine:
David Cameron is so keen to give British entrepreneurs a foothold that he recently took a high-level delegation of corporate CEOs to Nigeria and South Africa to highlight “one of the greatest economic opportunities on the planet”. The trip — featuring the bosses of firms such as Barclays and Bombardier, Vodafone and Virgin Atlantic — was hailed by Downing Street as “a historic visit to a continent with a trillion dollar economy and the potential, according to the IMF, to grow faster than Brazil over the next five years”. Much of that growth will come from startups that bring the mobile internet to businesses and consumers who have until now been offline. That’s why Cameron’s team invited along the British founders of red-hot mobile-money business Monitise, a clever text-messaging system called FrontlineSMS– and your own Digital Life columnist with his trusty notebook.
Africa needs to find it own way without the western world bleeding it dry. As western educated Pan-Africanists, its time for Black men and women to return to the continent to build on behalf of our people.
Before You Make Moves….
Before you pack up and move to Africa, you need to be clear about the challenges on the ground. Corrupt government officials, ridiculous bureaucracies, bad infrastructure, and unreliable power sources might produce some real unforseen challenges. You may find yourself waiting in line for days at a time to receive simple permits, traffic jams that last all day, or paying as much as 70% in taxes! Take this comment from an entrepreneur living in Kenya:
I live in Nairobi, Kenya, a capital city with a huge infrastructure, a train network, motorways, electricity and water and cable. Investors will have to negotiate 36 hour power cuts, four hour traffic jams with un-maintained engines pouring black smoke, roads with potholes so big they destroy your company fleet and frequent attacks by armed robbers who are routinely released without trial because the judiciary and police are also corrupt. Progress through Commerce – can’t come soon enough for people here!
If none of that scares you, then the next step is to develop your skill sets. Start training yourself in computer technology, telecommunications, and very basic engineering. Its not that hard; most of these skills can be learned online with a few hours of practice a week. Microsoft, CompTIA, Cisco, CIW, LPI, Red Hat, and IBM all offer training and certification programs that cost a couple hundred dollars,and community colleges offer courses for less than that. Start with an A+ Certification to learn the absolute basics of computer technology, networking and security.
Also, Ed at Dream and Hustle regularly drops jewels of entrepreneurial knowledge on his site free of charge. He is one of the few American entrepreneurs who sees the potential of M-commerce, and a few of my most profitable ideas came from his site.
Dont underestimate the power of self-education! Bill Gates, Kim Dot Com (a day trader and hacker), and Facebook co-founders Dustin Moskovitz and Sean Parker all learned their crafts on their own. If you are reading this on an electronic device, you too have the power to educate and empower yourself. With all of the free online resources out there you would be a fool not to do so.
It should be said that each country in Africa has different advantages and disadvantages. Some are more connected to the internet than others, some are native English speakers whereas others arent, and the climates vary from liberal to conservative as much as they change from hot deserts to cool lowlands.
There are other factors outside of this article’s scope that will influence your decision to get involved. Customs and immigration, your marital status and family, healthcare, and your personal tastes will all have a substantial impact here. Before jumping in, take a vacation to the country that you are considering ( and turn around and use the trip as a tax write-off next year). Read message boards and posts made by expatriates living in Africa. Learn as much as you can about trade, economics, commerce, and local customs in addition to your skill set. You cant prepare enough!
If you have done your homework, are determined, and have an entrepreneurial spirit, there are 3 fields that are primed for explosive growth over the next decade:
B2B Web Development
The OPPORTUNITY here is that very few businesses have reliable online web presences. An entrepreneur who can come in, set up a server, build and monetize a website for a company, and maintain that website with a small staff can make a killing. The CHALLENGE here is convincing companies that websites are needed, inexpensive, can increase revenues, and that you know what you are doing. Polish up your presentation and sales skills, understand the needs of these small business owners, and learn as you grow.
Up-Cycling and Innovating
Up-cycling is the recycling of old items to create a new innovation. Examples include creating an internet radio from an old computer router, or using an old PC fan to create a battery-charging wind turbine. As more Americans ditch PCs for iPads and laptops, the fans from PC towers can be shipped over to Africa, where there is a big need for reliable power to charge cell phones and other small devices. Check out Scrap to Power to see just how easy this can be.
The OPPORTUNITY here is that there are tons of innovations that can be done with stuff thats cheap and easy to find. The CHALLENGE here will be to get locals to adopt new applications. You will need to become a “missionary” for your innovations – going from neighborhood to neighborhood showing customer’s how to use them. You may need to hire a small staff that knows the language and customs of potential customers to sell your new applications. Use m-Pesa (more on m-Pesa below), or be willing to accept forms of payment other than money. Trade your up-cyled devices for food, labor, or other things that you need and would have spent money on anyway.
Also, old technology can be used in new ways. Mobile phones can be turned into blood-pressure monitors and ultrasound devices that can connect rural communities. They can also detect counterfeit medicines: the startup mPedigree works with drug companies to let patients text codes on packs of antimalarial and HIV medicines to receive confirmation that they’re real.
M-commerce (and m-Pesa)
“Today, mobile banking systems mean we can cut out middlemen and make a direct impact on the lives of small farmers who can produce more food, feed their families, sell more food at the market and in turn buy more seed.” – Lagos Business School
M-commerce, or mobile commerce, is the use of mobile feature phones for banking, farming, shopping, business to business transactions, etc. Feature phones are the old-school phones that came before smart phones and have limited ability to surf the web. You can check out how feature phones are used in mobile banking in this short video clip from ABN Digital:
There are only a handful of companies in Africa that provide mobile banking services. The OPPORTUNITY here is developing e-commerce stores around mobile banking technology. Think eBay, Amazon, and even online grocery delivery – like Netgrocer. There is growing competition in this market, like American startup SlimTrader. Slimtrader runs a service called MoBiashara that lets consumers shop by mobile on very basic cell phones.
m-Pesa has really led the way in the field of M-Commerce in Africa. M-Pesa (M for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money) is a branchless banking service that lets users complete basic banking transactions without having to visit a bank. m-Pesa customers can deposit and withdraw money from a network of agents set up at small local kisoks, can send money from one cell phone to another, and can pay vendors without having to pull cash out of their pocket. m-Pesa has changed the game up, and I encourage you to do more research on it!
I hope this article has proven useful to at least a handful of Pan-Africanists who are willing to take the challenge. The internet is only now arriving to Africa, and — with a billion people on the continent still mostly offline — there exists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build the next Amazons, eBays and Reverb Nations for a huge untapped local market. Africa needs a new class of entrepreneurs willing to work not just for their own financial gain, but for the transformation of Africa and her people. A dollar, an idea, and a little bit of education can take you much farther in Africa than in Europe or America these days, so take advantage. I will see you there!