By Herman Chinery-Hesse
Racism and a legacy of colonialism are preventing the West from recognizing the potential of African innovation while modern technology is driving entrepreneurial endeavors among small businesses and providing some pointers for Panama.
Affordable technology is helping people all over Africa propel an economic revolution. Investment is pouring in from India, China, and other emerging markets. But the West, in my eyes, is ignoring one of the 21st century’s most important stories.
There are reasons the West has historically overlooked African innovation. Racism plays a big part, owing to the West’s past of colonialism and slavery on the continent. Much of the West’s acquisition of wealth was a direct result of the colonial era, which, for all intents and purposes, is not something that has been relayed to western populations accurately. Too many people in the West are under the assumption that it is their aid or assistance that sustains Africa, without understanding the underlying structures that have been put in place, and are held in place, by institutions that serve the West.
This culture of misinformation is propagated by politicians, businesses, and media agencies that paint Africans as helpless, dim recipients of western aid. That mindset carries over into the business world, leaving the impression that African companies are incapable of operating on par with their Asian or western counterparts. To anyone who has lived in Africa, this is simply nonsense.
If Africans had access to the same government structures and resources that exist in the West, this gap would quickly close. In fact, the recent spread of mobile phones and Internet access has started a nascent wave of African entrepreneurism. Kenya, Rwanda, and Ghana are at the front of the pack, with their gross domestic products growing by as much as 10 percent a year. The trends they have benefitted from in recent years could soon help citizens of many other countries catch up.
Technology has become much more affordable over the past two decades, and, because internet dongles work everywhere that mobile phones work, Internet access can be had in even some of the most remote corners of the continent.
Unprecedented access to mobile phones has created other efficiencies: An artisan who previously could only cater to one client a day sitting in her shop can now run a sophisticated and complex operation, as she can be reached through her mobile phone any time, anywhere. It is my belief that the recent surge in economic growth in Africa is attributable, to a large extent, to this latent and invisible game changer.
It is in this realm of start-ups and entrepreneurs that foreign governments and businesses ought to provide their assistance and expertise. Foreign aid, in my experience, typically undermines the development of local industries and facilitates corrupt practices. The way it is currently configured, aid is a distraction that gives our governments the ability to avoid doing what the population requires.
In Ghana, the government undertakes 60-70 percent of purchases. In most cases, it does not purchase local technology from local companies. Local businesses are therefore left to compete and operate in the remaining 30-40 percent of the available market. Multinationals broadly import their technology from their head offices, which are normally headquartered in the West, further disenfranchising local companies. Unfortunately, our governments have not done anything to provide protection or encouragement for local industries as most western governments have.
To make a difference, we need to treat African enterprises as equals, building and fostering trade and business ties within Africa and internationally. We need deliberate public-policy initiatives and directives that support digital entrepreneurs and the IT sector, as exist for the mining, telecommunications, oil and gas, cash crops, and foreign direct investment sectors.
Practically, this means governments should be encouraged to give contracts to local companies, enabling them to gain experience and become more competitive locally and internationally. More platforms like my website, www.shopafrica53.com, and mobile-based payment systems would oil the wheels of e-commerce for the average person.
Part and parcel to all this is literacy. Millions of illiterate Africans will have challenges using the smartphones and computers needed to take part in the digital marketplace. This needs to be addressed before any major uptake of smartphones will be possible. African IT innovations based on SMS are working very well as they can be made illiterate friendly, and are cheaper and more reliable. I therefore anticipate a more incremental shift in usage of smartphones, broadly mirroring increases in literacy rates.
In the two decades since I started SOFTtribe, Ghana’s leading software developer, I’ve witnessed the proliferation of mobile phone and Internet communications, the spread of democracies, and the uptake of the rule of law. There are also recent indications of brain gain. What a pity it would be for the West to ignore the second chapter of this indigenous digital revolution.
Herman Chinery-Hesse is the founder and CEO of SOFTtribe, the largest software company in Ghana and one of the largest in all of Africa. He is widely considered the "Bill Gates of Africa", and has recently launched www.shopafrica53.com, a website that allows African entrepreneurs and artists to sell their products to a worldwide market.
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