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Africa must lead next technology innovation

Africa must lead next technology innovation By Walter Baets and Sifiso Dabengwa

Companies with their roots in Africa will have an advantage in the coming technology boom, and the rise of technology innovators in Africa – from Sterio.me, a young startup that is rolling out a trial of its mobile e-learning service to 75 schools in Nigeria to Aweza, a South African translation app that uses crowdsourcing translations to weed out inaccuracies and aims to leverage the growing mobile arena and encourage cultures to interact across their defined lines – are a testament to this.

From these we see that the kind of people driving this innovation are also different. It is no longer enough just to have technology skill, the new tech entrepreneurs will be those who are eager to explore the world, who are able to work in future uncertainty and complexity – they will be young and savvy enough to understand technology, but business-minded enough to know how to turn this into a value-adding service or product.
Investing in and developing this generation of entrepreneurs to create these industries in Africa will become a focus of the new era of technology – for business and training institutions alike. They will be looking to identify the right people – and then capacitating a​nd supporting them. Partnerships will be key here. The 2014 SEED SA Symposium, a multi-stakeholder forum to foster social and green entrepreneurship in Africa, warns that one of the key challenges for African entrepreneurs is securing partnerships with technical experts, and research institutions in particular, to ensure cross fertilisation.
Complex challenges demand people and organisations who can see and work across silos and boundaries, and the simple truth is that collaboration opens up networks and shares skills, ideas and human capital for the benefit of more people. Working together, especially when the collaborators bring different skills to the table, can create stronger outcomes. When different areas of expertise collide – magic can happen.
Into this space, exciting hybrids are already emerging. Novel partnerships, such as those recently concluded between the UCT Graduate School of Business and the MTN Group and Silicone Cape and FNB, are exploring new forms of business innovation and challenging traditional roles of business in society to unlock greater value for every day Africans.
What these partnerships have in common is the conviction that in Africa, there is no shortage of ideas and talent – from high-tech research institutions to grassroots entrepreneurs who are finding novel applications for existing technology to tackle local challenges.
There are increasing examples around the world from MIT’s Media Lab to Canada’s Mitacs, that demonstrate that deliberate collaboration for innovation can be hugely significant. Africa needs to build more such initiatives so that technology hype can be turned into reality for millions of African citizens.
John Kelly, IBM’s head of research goes one step further. He believes that there is an opportunity here “for Africa to move, and move first, to this new era.” In the same way that mobile penetration leap frogged over traditional telecommunications infrastructure, Africa can jump straight to the tech frontier, without worrying about adapting old systems to cope with the data it creates.
Today, 353 million Africans are dialled in. What greater value will come when the disruptive force of technology is given structure and purpose and is properly informed by context?
If we get it right, the impact of technology can move beyond pockets of success that are showcased in the annual reports of technology multinationals to actually shifting the fortunes of the continent.
Walter Baets is the Director of the UCT Graduate School of Business. Sifiso Dabengwa is the Group President and CEO of MTN. The two organisations have recently signed a major three-year deal to invest in the future of innovation on the continent.
This article was originally published in Business Report (Sunday Tribune) on 22 February 2015. 

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