Can investing in Africa’s tech generation change the future of development?

September 13, 2019

Investing in youth-led technological innovations would be very strategic for a continent that has an average of 80% of its labour force between the ages of 15-24 years. Photo: Caroline Murang’a/UNDPKenya

Africa’s technology scene is booming, driven largely by advancements in mobile phone technology which has become an important platform for innovators beyond its simple use as a communication device. Today, Africa’s digital generation has direct access to advanced technologies and are embracing its uses born out of a deep desire to find solutions to socioeconomic challenges.

What is simply incredible, is the emergence of promising new talents every day, sometimes from the most unusual suspects. Take the story of 17 years old Nur Jemal, Anwar Wudu, and Fikir Legesse, from the remote village of Kombolcha in Ethiopia, famously called the “Kombolcha trio”, who electrified a large audience with 30 technological innovations at a UN youth forum in Ethiopia. With no money, no smart phones, no computers, their dream, passion, hunger and sheer determination drove them to invent robots for various purposes, censors of different types, a solar water pump, an FM transmitter, mobile application, and a helmet with a fan, among many other innovations. The trio, motivated by the desire to find solutions to every day challenges they faced in their community, hung out in internet cafes after school to learn to teach themselves how to create these innovative life-changing gadgets just by observing other inventers online. Most of their inventions were made with cardboard boxes, the only free items available to them. It was not difficult to imagine what they could do with the right supportive environment.

Just recently in Niamey, while visiting the Africa Development University in Niger, I encountered Raouf Hama and Feycal Saidou, two 18-year old self-made innovators whose innovations of solar energy and online grocery market for low-income households in remote areas, reflected the size of their dreams to change the world around them, to put their country at another level of development.

The wave of young, ambitious entrepreneurs who are changing the digital face of the continent in various sectors is inspiring, when one hears of innovative breakthroughs from places with very low ICT connectivity indices. Some other examples include Ulrich Sossou, the prolific tech and social entrepreneur in real estate development in Benin; Maxwell Chikumbutso in Zimbabwe who invented the green power generator, an electric powered vehicle and the hybrid helicopter; and William Kamkwamba in Malawi, harnessing wind energy to power electrical appliances and irrigation systems in his community. Also, Muthoni Wanyoike (Kenya) and Jade Abbott (South Africa) are two African women at the forefront of Africa’s growing artificial intelligence (AI) ecosystem, using AI to solve problems and providing learning opportunities for other women. The examples are many, promising a bright future for the continent.

Entire industries are growing around payment solutions and crowd-sourcing, with South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and other countries leading the way. To-date, Africa has about 314 active tech-hubs in 93 cities and 42 countries. It is not surprising therefore that Africa has been leading in mobile payments through mobile money transfer services like M-Pesa which now serves over 30 million users across ten countries. The tech-hubs are also powering some innovative youth-led initiatives like the Science Set in Ghana, Fundi Bots in Uganda and N-Power in Nigeria, improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. The health sector is also benefiting from similar digital solutions. Felix Kimaru in Kenya for example, is contributing to the improvement of maternal and child health through a mobile tracking system called Totohealth. These tech-innovations demonstrate transformative potential, bypassing many of Africa’s structural challenges to inclusive development.   

In Africa, the entertainment and media space have also seen phenomenal changes in the last decades with the growth of internet and the proliferation of new devices, leading to the introduction of streaming services. The film and music Industry have technologically advanced over the years, offering jobs opportunities to young people. For instance, Nollywood, which is regarded as the second largest film producer globally after India’s Bollywood, is estimated to achieve $1billion in export revenue by 2020 and is creating a lot of jobs.  The African music scene is witnessing growth as well, with afro beats reaching a global audience and African musicians collaborating with globally-renowned artists. 

Scaling the Digital Drive

The changing technological landscape couldn’t have come at a better time for Africa and holds a sure promise of leapfrogging into the 4th industrial revolution. However, more needs to be done, including investing in its soft and hard infrastructure. Africa’s internet penetration remains low at 25% and so is access to electricity which is at an average of 43% compared to 87% globally, limiting the adoption of life-changing technologies in all sectors.

The question is - how can Africa leverage its growing innovative and digital space to address several of its remaining development challenges? One way would be for Africa to step up its engagement and forge strong and new kinds of partnerships especially with the private sector and philanthropic institutions to accelerate investments in strategic areas. Mo Ibrahim and Tony Elumelu Foundations are already championing investments in health, education, governance and entrepreneurship development, but more is required. Investing in youth-led tech start-ups and tech hubs for technological innovations would be very strategic for a continent that has an average of 80% of its labour force between the ages of 15-24 years.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is committed to building stronger partnerships with all development actors to fully exploit untapped opportunities on the continent. Currently, UNDP is investing heavily in alternative models of development to scale up solutions. Through its 60 SDG Accelerator Labs  with more than half (36) in Africa, the continent is poised for unprecedented development.

The future of development is certainly in Africa. Whatever its challenges, it is increasingly becoming a center for big tech investments and commercially oriented start-ups. We hope to partner with a lot of the private sector actors, big and small, on our  SDGs Impact and YouthConnekt initiatives for accelerated achievement of the global goals and Africa’s own vision – Agenda 2063. Even with some margin of failure, the promise of Africa’s tech generation leading us towards accelerated development and monumental technological successes is too good to resist. 

Miss Ahunna Eziakonwa with students innovators of the African Development University (ADU) in Niger. Photo: UNDP