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African Tech Start-Ups and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

 5 min read / 

A Fourth Industrial Revolution is underway. African tech start-ups are part of a digital revolution that has the power to transform employment, industries, economies and relationships.

The First and Second Industrial Revolutions swept the Western world. The Second Industrial Revolution was driven by the diffusion of electricity, steel, petroleum and urbanisation. Yet, Africa lagged behind. It was not until the Third Industrial Revolution expanded information technology that African lives were truly changed and reliance on traditional employment started to decline. In contrast to its predecessors, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is unfolding at an exponential rather than a linear pace.

Today, the transformative power of technology should be viewed as an opportunity for innovation and the development of skills for enabling wide scale change rather than a ‘magic bullet’ for a nation’s problems. Nonetheless, this shift will support Africa’s transition from the margins to the mainstream of the global economy and lead to the emergence of a blossoming ecosystem of entrepreneurs, tech ventures and innovation hubs.

The Rise of Silicon Savannah

It is widely accepted that Africa’s tech movement has its origins in Kenya, hence the moniker ‘Silicon Savannah’ for Nairobi. This is due to a dynamic combination of factors and coincidences, namely, the emergence of mobile money and a global crowdsourcing app, Africa’s tech incubator model and a genuine government commitment to ICT policy.

In 2007, Safaricom launched the M-Pesa mobile money product which expanded quickly to become a great example of technological leapfrogging: it introduced citizens to the digital economy and bypassed traditional banking. Later, the Ushahidi crowdsourcing app was created. It digitally maps demographic events around the world and has since become a global venture.

The Emerging African Tech Landscape

As notorious as it has become, Silicon Savannah only represents a share of Sub-Saharan Africa’s tech scene. Research led by the authors of ‘The Next Africa’ highlight the existence of over 200 African innovation hubs, 3,500 new tech-related ventures and over $1bn in Venture Capital towards a pan-African development of start-up entrepreneurs.

As an illustration, Nigeria is becoming a centre for technology investment. Despite the country’s various challenges, investors and entrepreneurs remain enticed by the promise of scaling applications to Africa’s largest economy. Its tech sector is a positive account of the potential of brain gain (and reversal of brain drain) through the extension and return of social and human capital as well as the reshaping of the continents’ global linkages.

Venture Capital Funding

The African Development Bank (AfDB) estimated that around 55% of the sub-Saharan African economy is informal. This illustrates the scope of business without access to formal banking or internet services.

As a result, VC-backed start-ups might intend to extend their reach throughout Africa’s informal economy. Helping to solve enduring African socio-economic problems is increasingly becoming a tech opportunity. For instance, aid-agency grants often targeted at NGO’s are increasingly being redirected to social venture-focused tech organisations.

Venture capitalists willing to tap into the recent waves of technological advances on the back of the spread of mobile phones are pouring millions of dollars into local and international Africa-focused start-ups.

The opportunity is particularly compelling given the pressure African economies are under due to the falling prices of commodity exports and the slowdown in the growth of China, their biggest trading partner. VC funding raised by African tech start-ups in 2016 totalled US$ 366.8m, which was up 33% from 2015. Financial inclusion and consumer services drew most of this investment.

Nonetheless, the market is far its full potential. Despite impressive flows of capital to the continent, access to funds remains a challenge for African entrepreneurs. The issue for these start-ups is that they are often too large for microfinance but too small to receive loans from traditional banks.

Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that many sub-Saharan ventures will not succeed, due to a lack of robust ICT environments and baseline infrastructure needed for their smooth operation. On the other hand, despite these difficulties, the existing commitment (specifically from investors) portrays the optimism and hope for the continent.

Venture capital will not only create economic sustainability but also the technological and managerial support required for strategic and operational decision-making, which often cause new businesses to fail.

A Bright Future

According to a survey by the Emerging Markets Private Equity Association, Sub-Saharan Africa has become the most appealing emerging market for investors. The overall narrative overrides the belief that Africa is disconnected from the global economy, mired in conflict or corruption and heavily dependent on foreign direct investment.

The forthcoming revolution is driven by business, innovation and a new class of highly talented entrepreneurs. The significance of Africa’s markets, in conjunction with its savvy entrepreneurs, will mark an era in which its potential will take precedence over its challenges, and thus transform the developing continent into an entrepreneurial global powerhouse and reshape its relationship with the world.

The real economy and the digital economy are not mutually exclusive. The two have become one as technology blurs the barriers between the physical and digital spheres. The future of African tech appears bright but, ultimately, African governments hold the responsibility of realising its potential.

 

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Africa

Standing Defiant: African Countries Respond to Trump’s Comments

 5 min read / 

Africa Trump

Trump’s recent bout of racism has given African states the opportunity to exert considerable agency on the world stage and also take the moral high ground of dignity and respect. Though Trump’s comments are of a vulgar and vile nature, they represent nothing new: African countries are severely misunderstood and misrepresented in mindsets and media, in particular by those of some western publics.

This is to everyone’s detriment, as African countries are strategic partners in trade and security and will only grow more vital to the state of global, economic and political affairs – it is estimated that the majority of the world’s population growth will take place on the African continent.

The African Union’s Response

Trump’s comments are an opportunity for the African Union, or AU, and for individual African states to exert agency and also strengthen their moral standing. Trump’s outright racism and the ensuing African diplomatic response and the strong voices on social media represent a key moment in recognising Africa’s all too often under-appreciated importance to global affairs. The African Union condemned Trump’s comments in the strongest of terms, and issued a statement declaring that:

“The African Union Mission wishes to express its infuriation, disappointment and outrage over the unfortunate comment made by Mr. Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, which remarks dishonor the celebrated American creed and respect for diversity and human dignity.” The comments were further characterized by African envoys as “outrageous, racist, and xenophobic.”

Botswana has been a major voice in this response, describing the comments as “irresponsible, reprehensible, and racist.” Among the larger African states, Nigeria has not issued an official response, though South Africa is issuing a diplomatic protest over the comments, stressing that “relations between South Africa and the United States, and between the rest of Africa and the United States, must be based on mutual respect and understanding.” US diplomats were summoned in Ghana, Botswana, and Senegal – more African countries are expected to follow suit.

American Views on Africa

The racism and ethnocentrism inherent in labelling “distant” countries (such as Haiti and nations in Africa) pejoratively is nothing new. Though most Americans would not express their worldviews in such crass and vulgar terms, there is widespread ignorance about African countries, with little recognition that African countries represent strategic trade and security partners, not to mention their vast cultural wealth. This problem lies in all facets of American society, from predominantly negative and homogenising news coverage about the African continent to the Eurocentric focus of the education system.

These comments were made in a larger context of domestic demographic change within the US, in which white people will enter minority status by 2044, in addition to the global power shifts of the wider world. Not only are Trump’s comments steeped in racism and ignorance, but they represent the uncertainty and deep discomfort many white Americans feel in the midst of the changing domestic demographics and a world order in which the US is no longer the lone superpower.

Africa is the Future

The African continent is the future, as African population growth will account for the majority of the world’s global population with half of the world being African by 2100. African countries are already strategic partners in trade and security, and will only become stronger players in global political and economic affairs.

Though it is certainly a desired goal for public opinion – the worldviews of western publics in particular – to recognise and appreciate the importance of African countries in their right and their integral significance to international relations, in some respects it doesn’t matter what Americans might think about a massive continent of 54 countries. As John and Jean Comaroff have written in ‘Theory from the South‘, “Lagos is not catching up to us. Rather, we are the ones catching up to Lagos.” African countries are not waiting on Western publics’ enlightenment.

Due to the rise of emerging powers changing the global landscape of power relations, African countries have more opportunity than ever to exert agency in selecting their partners and leveraging relations for national gain. Though the US is a key economic partner for much of the continent, African countries have many other options and it is well known that the approach of China and other emerging powers are, in many respects, regarded more positively than traditional western approaches. Relations between the US and African countries have been marked by longstanding goodwill, but Trump’s comments may complicate relations, ranging from security cooperation to trade ties.

Most important is African ownership of African development, in which the harmonisation of external partners aligns with domestically articulated goals and aims in respect to the continent’s nations. African countries, and all of the diversity within them, must be appreciated in their own right and understood on their own terms.

Conclusion

African countries have their own visions and national development plans and are charting a course marked by innovation and holistic strategies aimed at meeting both human and environmental needs. It is time African countries are recognised and respected for the leaders they are on the world stage and that western publics realise that society’s global future is very much an African one.

Trump’s comments are of course vulgar and crude, but should make people think very seriously about society’s own failings in how people portray – and learn about – Africa, an incredibly diverse continent of 54 countries, from our media to our classrooms. Africa is the future, and – following Trump’s comments – African countries have taken the opportunity to exert agency on the world stage and take the moral high ground.

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Africa

Gem Reports Finding Fifth-Biggest Diamond in History

 2 min read / 

biggest diamond

One of the biggest diamonds in history has been dug up in the Kingdom of Lesotho, Southern Africa.

The diamond has been valued at 910 carats and described as of “exceptional quality”. At roughly the size of two golf balls, it is the fifth biggest diamond ever found.

The stone was found at the Lestseng Diamond Mine in north-east Lesotho, operated by Gem Diamonds Ltd.  The mine is renowned for the size and quality of its stones, which have the highest average selling price in the world. It was at the Letseng mine that the 603-carat Lesotho Promise diamond was found in 2006 and sold for a reported $12.4bn in Belgium.

“This exceptional top-quality diamond is the largest to be mined to date and highlights the unsurpassed quality of the Letseng mine,” CEO Clifford Elphick said in a statement. “This is a landmark recovery for all of Gem Diamonds’ stakeholders, including our employees, shareholders and the Government of Lesotho, our partner in the Letseng mine.”

It has been categorised as a D colour Type IIa diamond, meaning it has very few or no nitrogen atoms making it a very rare, and very expensive, find. The price of a diamond is determined by the size and quality of the stones cut from it but it is estimated the stone could be worth at least $40m.

Last week, Gem reported it had found a 117-carat and 110-carat stone. In July, the company reported discoveries of two stones that exceeded 100 carats. 

At the news, Gem shares bumped up 18%, trading at 93 pence by 9:06 am.

(Photo: Gem Diamonds)

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Africa

Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies: The Keys to Reforming Inefficiencies in Nigeria?

 5 min read / 

Blockchain Nigeria

Nigeria, though still a developing country, is very much a resource-rich one – and that means a lot of potential for prosperity for the nation as a whole. Through the extraction and exportation of its vast oil reserves, Nigeria could raise huge sums of money to grow and develop infrastructure to reduce poverty and improve citizens’ quality of life. However, undermining all these possibilities are inefficiencies and corruption in the public sector; problems which have persisted for the last forty years. But could modern technologies such as Blockchain and cryptocurrency provide a solution?

Corruption and Inefficiency

Corruption and inefficiency are worryingly common in African countries at varying levels of development, and Nigeria is one of the worst affected. Its main industry, oil, has been particularly crippled by inefficiency problems; non-enforcement of contract terms in 1993 led to losses of $60bn, while between 2009 and 2011 a further $11bn was lost through theft. Nigerian ports are also impacted upon by inefficiencies and corruption and consequently suffer losses of nearly $3bn annually, as well as having the generation of 10,000 jobs each year stifled. Poor infrastructure, inconsistent policy and an unclear administrative system have been listed causes of the issues.

Yet, the problems are not limited only to commerce and businesses. The public sector in Nigeria is riddled with corruption, and this extends to the citizens that government officials are meant to serve. A report by anti-corruption organisation Transparency International ranked Nigeria lowly 136th in its annual Corruption Perception Index; it has also been found that on average a Nigerian will pay a bribe once every two months according to Nigeria’s 2016 National Corruption Report, with the police and prosecutors being the most frequent recipients. Clearly, Nigeria is consistently sabotaging its own potential through administrative problems and personal greed. However, a combination of Blockchain technology and cryptocurrency could help end this cycle.

As explained in the previous article on Blockchain, the concept can be described as a decentralised peer-to-peer digital ledger in which financial records, compiled into a block, are added to a digital chain in a permanent and unchangeable way. By being decentralised, there are both security and speed improvements; security is increased by the removal of any ‘master copy’ of the ledger, while the absence of a middle-man drastically decreases the time a transaction takes to be completed. The other technology mentioned – cryptocurrencies – are digital currencies that harness the Blockchain technology in an online marketplace. But what does this have to do with preventing corruption and inefficiency? Well, in fact, there are uses of these two concepts that are very relevant here.

Smart Contracts

Firstly, smart contracts could be used to provide citizens with access to their legal entitlements. Blockgeeks state how smart contracts help ‘exchange money, property, shares, or anything of value in a transparent, conflict-free way while avoiding the services of a middleman’. In the more remote areas of Nigeria, this could prove revolutionary. It could give farmers legal rights for their land, in doing so providing them with a valuable and tradeable asset; an NGO called Bitland is already providing this service in Ghana with great success – there’s no reason why Nigeria could not engage in the same process, improving current inefficiencies in the legal sector as well as reducing inequalities.

Additionally, if citizens were to have access to their own legal profile in which their rights, assets and licences are all easily available, it could go far in reducing the prevalence of the everyday bribery that appears to go on so often. If an individual needed to obtain a new copy of a driving license, for example, they could do so using Blockchain, without the need to go through a public sector that is almost above the law and can charge illegally.

Democracy

Furthermore, Blockchain technology could be used to ensure true democracy occurs. A lot of African countries remain in quasi-dictatorial states, in which a dictator operates essentially under the illusion of untampered democratic process. A Blockchain can provide a transparent, unchangeable ledger of digital votes that would ensure corruption could not occur, and therefore democracy would be protected.

While Nigeria does operate democratically, it is evident that corruption is present throughout the state infrastructure, and therefore the country would benefit from having a system that could ensure democracy exists without exploitation. This open-ledger technology, in combination with cryptocurrency, can prevent corruption outside of voting too. By providing a traceable record of every single financial transaction and through the absence of a middle-man, it could create tangible progress in the prevention of foreign aid being misappropriated, something that has been seen to occur in Nigeria.

Conclusion

However, for all the potential improvements that Blockchain and cryptocurrencies can provide, major obstacles still remain. There will be significant data privacy and governance considerations surrounding the transparency of these ledgers; ledgers that will be containing what is currently regarded as confidential and private information. As well as this, there has to be a willingness of the existing government to use the new technology – it obviously cannot be forced upon them.

Given that the government largely is the target of the reform that Blockchain and cryptocurrencies would enable, it appears unlikely that such technology will be welcomed with open arms. Instead, it seems that there somehow needs to be an overhaul of the attitudes within the Nigerian public sector, so that it is more willing to find solutions to the crippling problems that have persisted for so long. 

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