9 May 2014

Africa: Are Tech Companies Key to African Growth?

Photo: World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell
Africa Rising Discussion at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Abuja, Nigeria 2014.


Abuja — As tech companies begin to take root and grow in Africa, I believe we have an opportunity to change lives, forge communities and build the continent.

In a world where we can have whatever we want, do whatever we want to do and be whatever we want to be, we're faced with the challenge of answering the following questions: what do we want? What kind of Africa do we want to build?

What we want is to improve the state of Africa. And when we say that we are committed to creating a more inclusive world, what we mean is that we want to build a world in which everyone is able to dream, and to realize these dreams.

Tech companies are uniquely placed to shape Africa's economic and social empowerment. They have the ability to grow and scale exponentially. The same number of products that would have taken hundreds of physical stores to distribute can now reach customers through a single e-commerce platform. Millions of unbanked people can now send and receive money through their mobile phones. Information that was once only possible to distribute locally can now be broadcast to the entire continent. It is now possible to access an education using nothing more than a laptop and an internet connection.

The potential benefits for local traders are incalculable. For the average African, it could also lead to more jobs, higher wages and better living conditions.

This may require a reimagining of e-commerce to more closely mimic traditional trade in Africa, and a push to bring informal traders into the digital age. It could also mean distributing local language content on the web, or using the internet to teach skills to Africa's youthful workforce.

What excites me about these possibilities is that they are not merely opportunities to do things well, but also to do good.

Technology companies have also become significantly cheaper to start.

This represents another great opportunity to the average African, who perhaps does not have access to funding. Now, all they need is a computer, internet and an entrepreneurial spirit to get going and, eventually, provide jobs to others.

Information technology is one of the few areas in which Africa is not too far behind the rest of the world. The tools and skills needed to be innovative and transformative are not beyond our reach. We are yet to build Africa's Amazon, Google or PayPal, but these companies all emerged in the last 20 years, so perhaps our own versions are just about to be born.

Because of the unique character of Africa, I expect the continent's tech companies will look and function differently to those in other parts of the world, but their impact will be just as great. And, essentially, again because of the African context, it will likely be the companies which do the most to improve the social as well as economic well-being of the African people.

We should be excited about what the future of technical innovation will do for Africa.

Author: Esi Cleland is Chief Executive Officer of AfroChic, Ghana, and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.

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