Sweet uses of adversity for African entrepreneurs

Africa’s digital revolution may be lagging but its many obstacles are also a source for innovation.

Young startup promoters work on their computers in New Bonako, Cameroon.

A quarter century after the dawn of the internet, Africa still faces big obstacles in tapping its digital potential. Only about a third of the continent’s 1.4 billion people have access to broadband. Power outages are common. The median cost of an entry-level internet-enabled device eats up 40% of average monthly income. And in at least six countries this year, rulers have temporarily shut down the internet for political reasons.

Yet in spite of such obstacles – or perhaps because of them – a rising number of innovators are coming up with creative devices and services, often useful to the rest of the world. In announcing its 2019 list of “Africa Innovators” last month, for example, the Quartz global news site noted, “We were often struck not just by their ideas but also by the creative thinking required to get around their local obstacles.”

This is no surprise to one of Africa’s most famous technology entrepreneurs, Juliana Rotich of Kenya. This week she was honored with the German Africa Prize, an award given out each year to an outstanding person from Africa. To her, adversity and constraints are a resource for innovation.

Take her first breakthrough, a crowdsourcing platform called Ushahidi, or “witness” in Swahili. It allows users to upload photos and information about events tied to a specific location. It was first introduced in 2007 to track violence during postelection riots in Kenya that were barely covered by local media. It has since found uses in many countries to provide instant reporting on natural disasters or to monitor elections.

Ms. Rotich also tackled Africa’s lack of electricity and internet access by coming up with a battery-operated modem-router that can function as a source for Wi-Fi for up to eight hours without electric power. It is now used in more than 100 countries.

And she tapped into another of Africa’s distinct conditions: its high degree of collaboration when dealing with adversity. She co-founded iHub, a company assisting startups anywhere in the world on a platform that encourages entrepreneurs to share and engage with each other. Its mantra: “As long as you’re good and awesome, we don’t care where you live.”

Ms. Rotich is just one of thousands in Africa who see hurdles as handy for inspiration. The digital revolution is just starting on the continent. Yet as the new flow of information helps deepen connections, she says, it provides “a true exploration of who we are.”

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