Africa’s Digital Trek: From Kenya to the World

Africa’s Digital Trek: From Kenya to the World

Prior to posting this article, I had considered numerous alternative titles before settling for Africa’s Digital Trek: From Kenya to the World. Before I go into the details of the post, I think it is only fair that I shared what could have been the title and why. 

First, I thought about “The Long Walk to (Digital) Freedom” mapped against Nelson Mandela’s biopic “The Long Walk to Freedom.”

A second option could have been “Digital footprints on the Silicon Sands of Africa poised on developments in the burgeoning innovation hubs in Africa. 

However, “Africa’s Digital Trek: From Kenya to the World,” it is! And here’s why. It is the most appropriate considering all the hype around the digital exploits of Africa. 

With this upfront disclaimer, I opine that there is a need for caution in the hype. Yes, numerous innovation (mostly digital) hubs have sprouted across Africa and a range of stakeholders including policy makers, the media and scholars (yes I am also complicit in this category) have gone ahead lost in optimism of the emerging entrepreneurial system and Africa’s response to the “Silicon Valley” innovation exploits. 

However, it has since become obvious that this model has its darksides with the job cuts of tech developers in the sub-region and the inappropriateness of the so-called emergent “digital footprints” responding to the well-established “Silicon Valley” narrative.

At this point, however, I would like to reflect on my recent book entitled “Digital Entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa” and its precursor “Digital Kenya” both published my the Palgrave-Singer alliance. Indeed, in one of the chapters from the latter book entitled The KINGS of Africa’s Digital Economy Eric Osiakwan points out that:

 “The tech wave is now moving through Kenya and has produced some of the country’s and the continent’s leading tech innovations—for example, Erik Hersman’s iHub and Safaricom’s M-PESA (made possible because of Vodacom’s prepaid airtime). The wave is now making its way to Lagos, Nigeria, and Abidjan, Ivory Coast. In my view, the wave’s route across and within these countries—namely, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa (KINGS)—is worthy of exploration.”

 “The digital economy in Africa started in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1995 when Mark Shuttleworth built Thawte, a leading certificate authority, and sold it to Verisign when Vodacom championed prepaid airtime.”

 He also pointed out that:

 “The wave then moved to Ghana in 2001, when, together with Mark Davies and others, BusyInternet was built—a multipurpose tech hub through which I started the Ghana New Ventures Competition in partnership with the MIT $50K Competition, bringing about www.smsgh.com

My colleagues and co-authors not long provided a snapshot of this book in an article entitled “Digital technologies are transforming African businesses, but obstacles remain,” unfortunately I was left out due to the business model of the outlet. But that’s a matter for another day. For now, however, I would like to highlight the contents of the book and how it speaks to the current winds blowing across the continent. I would proceed with an audacious statement, “our book goes one step further” by asking pertinent questions such as:

What next for digital entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa?

The book draws insights from the views of notable actors, insiders or those with a wealth of experience in researching some of the themes covered within it. From Ayodeji “Jobberman” Adewumi previously covered on this platform, to Professor Francoise “Ijeoma” Ugochukwu, also previously profiled on Tekedia.

Following on the heels of a sister book, Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making, this recently published book on Digital Entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa Challenges, Opportunities and Prospects, part of the Palgrave Studies of Entrepreneurship in Africa series, highlights the intersections of entrepreneurship and the “world of digital” in a context undergoing pubescence.

The collection showcases the exploits of digital enterprises in SSA drawing upon a range of case studies across sectors from agritech, fintech, media, animation and games. It also highlights the challenges and barriers that are in place and how some outstanding digital firms deal with operating in a hostile business environment. While digital platforms have created equal access for small businesses, many digital entrepreneurs in SSA continue to struggle with local environments replete with corruption, and other economic inefficiencies.

The contributions move the debate forward by addressing the challenges, opportunities, and prospects of digital enterprise in the sub-region. The book thus contends that, while on the one hand, digital platforms have created equal access, on the other hand many digital entrepreneurs in SSA still struggle with rather turbulent local environments. Consequently, this article touches upon three key sectors: Technology-enabled agriculture in Africa; Arts, Media and Entertainment ; and Innovation Hubs in Africa.

Technology-enabled agriculture in Africa

Two contributions focus on tech-enabled agriculture. The first entitled “The Nature of Corporate Digital Agricultural Entrepreneurship in Ghana”,  takes the reader through an interesting research area on corporate digital entrepreneurship from the Ghanaian perspective. A similar view is expressed in the second contribution entitled “Agri-tech Opportunities at the Bottom of the Pyramid: How Big Is the Opportunity and How Little Has Been Exploited? Some Selected Cases in Nigeria”,  which closely examines the rise of a distinctive form of entrepreneurship at the bottom of the pyramid interfaced with digital technology, illustrating the massive opportunities that could potentially be exploited. As the UN environment report points out, and instructively: 

“From invaluable farming advice shared via text message to livestock vaccines delivered when and where they are needed thanks to a mobile phone service, Agri-tech and precision farming are changing the face of agriculture across Africa.”

This transformation is an urgent imperative. With global warming threatening harvests, and the world’s population set to grow to around 10 billion by 2050, a sustainable agricultural revolution is needed to secure food supplies and protect the resources that sustains society from the purview of the subregion and well beyond.

Arts, Media and Entertainment 

In the sector of Arts and Entertainment, three chapters highlight prospects and challenges – albeit from a two-country perspective – i.e. Kenya and Nigeria. In the first of these chapters, Callus on the topic of “Shifting Cultural Capital: Kenyan Arts in Digital Spaces”, examines the impact of digital technology on cultural capital that is associated with curatorial practice, the gallery, and the marketplace. The chapter draws from the theory of cultural capital and illustrates how digital art challenges notions of authenticity in the discourse on African art.

As the emphasis shifts to the Nigerian context and especially in a  more recently recognised entertainment sector, two further contributions are made. In the first of these,  Bolat in her contribution entitled “The African New Media Digital Revolution: Some Selected Cases from Nigeria”, explores the historical timeline of and changes in the media landscape and presents an empirical investigation of new media SMEs (small-to-medium enterprises), reflecting on their journeys in establishing technological enterprises, the media used, and the resources that were critical to manage and run these businesses, as well as general commentary on enablers and barriers.

In the second contribution , “The Impact of New Media (Digital) and Globalisation on Nollywood”, the Nigerian movie industry is investigated in the light of digitalisation and new media. The article examined and highlighted how two major forces—new technologies and globalisation—have impacted (and are still impacting) upon the Nigerian film industry (also known as Nollywood), drawing on theories of value chain in production, distribution, and marketing of cultural products (i.e. movies), and its internationalisation.

Innovation Hubs in Africa: What Do They Really Do for Digital Entrepreneurs?

In a contribution of the same title of this section, one contribution provides a grounded perspective on Africa’s most widely noted type of digital entrepreneurship support organisation i.e.  the explosion of innovation hubs across Africa and the claims being made regarding how they facilitate entrepreneurship, including digital entrepreneurship, in Africa. Indeed, this subject was also touched upon in Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making where the digital evolution is reported to have kicked off in 1995 starting out in South Africa (Cape Town) with Thawte, a leading certificate authority – later sold to Verisign when Vodacom championed prepaid airtime. Moving  through to Ghana in 2001 with BusyInternet and www.smsgh.com and onwards to Kenya a leader in Africa’s tech innovations with structures such as Erik Hersman’s iHub and Safaricom’s M-PESA, and Yaba, a suburb of Lagos, Nigeria, labelled the country’s Silicon Valley with an established start-up ecosystem firmly in place.

Overall there is a need for more interrogation on how both incumbent and new players in the subregion are shaping the landscape and forging a renaissance – with a view to meeting the UN (United Nations) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The book also concludes with some thoughts on the subject of digital entrepreneurship in SSA and its many facets and a call for more research into this topic by both students and staff in business schools across the globe with an interest on entrepreneurship in the subregion whether facilitated or constrained by digitalisation.

Note: 

This article is based upon  recently published book on Digital Entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa Challenges, Opportunities and Prospects as part of the Palgrave Studies of Entrepreneurship in Africa series edited by three UK-based academics of African heritage .

The book may be cited as follows:

Taura, N. D., Bolat, E., & Madichie, N. O. (2019) Digital Entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa Challenges, Opportunities and Prospects.

Digital Entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa

 

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