Reimagining Africa as innovator

In preparing a visit to Africa, President Obama hopes to bring US investment in technology. Yet he may find Africa already on its way to indigenous innovation.

A Kenyan man waits for customers at his Nairobi shop that offers the M-Pesa money transfer service.

President Obama met with some of the most innovative US companies this week to encourage them to invest in Africa. He travels to Kenya this July for a “summit” on entrepreneurship and hopes to show what the United States can do for the continent.

When he gets there, however, Mr. Obama may be surprised to discover what Africa is already doing for itself. In recent years, its young inventors and entrepreneurs – two-thirds of Africans are under age 35 – have begun to reverse the narrative that the continent is mainly a recipient of foreign technology and a backwater for ideas.

Kenya, for example, which is the birthplace of Obama’s father, has become a world leader in mobile money systems – far ahead of Apple Pay. Across Africa, software such as M-PESA is revolutionizing daily financial life for people with little access to banks or credit. About 1 in 7 Africans now uses a phone for banking, a ratio higher than anywhere in the world. Kenya is also home to an IBM research lab and has plans to become a “Silicon Savanna.”

Africa has more mobile-phone users than the US or Europe. This pool of 635 million devices provides a giant digital platform for innovation that fits Africa’s culture and its unique needs. Technology is lightly regulated, which gives innovators more freedom to try new products.

The continent’s big tech hubs – Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, and Senegal – are starting to draw global attention as potential exporters of new technology. One Ghanaian start-up, for example, has done well in California with an online tool, Dropifi, that helps businesses manage customer feedback.

Last year, the African Union drew up a 10-year strategy to drive technological innovation as a way for the continent to move beyond exports of raw materials. And since 2011, the African Innovation Foundation has handed out a $100,000 prize each year for the most creative technological idea. Hundreds of young Africans apply from dozens of countries.

The foundation looks for applicants with a “deep-seated belief that solutions to the continent’s challenges do not need to be outsourced” and that Africans can be leaders in a “new African story.”

An innovation expert in South Africa, Mammo Muchie of the Tshwane University of Technology, says Africans must destroy the “false narrative” that other races are better at innovation. Africa can build on its special strengths – its large population of young people, its ancient cultural traditions, and its large market for inexpensive solutions to poverty. Innovation, after all, first requires imagination. Reimagining Africa seems to have already begun.

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