Yesterday, in Brussels, I spoke before founders/owners of mainly small and medium scale businesses, from across continental Europe, connecting what I have called America’s New Byte Road with African business opportunities. My job was to present the evolving opportunities and challenges of doing business in Africa. During the talk, I examined the emerging growth sectors, and delved into how firms could unlock opportunities in them.
These businesses are small, by European standards, as they averaged about 10 million Euros on revenue. They see Africa as a growth region but are also concerned with the shifting policies, cyclical developmental indicators and our heterogeneous market structures which make scaling business visions more challenging.
Of course, the emerging backward regulations like penalizing bloggers and imposing excessive financial burdens, to use social media portals, in some countries like Zambia and Tanzania, are issues. From the breaking news on CNN to the commentaries on BBC, you have elements.
I handled those elements and presented key pillars and enablers which could help them, with specific insights per sector. When I gave a similar talk in 2016, in Brussels, there were 17 business-owners. So, it was progress that 79 came this year. Who knows we may need to run this as a TV show in 10 years! Go figure, good people.
Certainly, I was not there to be campaigning blindly to do business in Africa. I was there to call it the way it is. But in the midst of the paralysis, I offered roadmaps for opportunities. I believe that Africa is a frontier. Yes, the future can only get better in Africa.
Deepening my talk, I presented to them that despite the historical connection Europe has with Africa, Africa may be pulling away. I noted two key forces which are emerging – China’s New Silk Road and America’s New Byte Road; I made up the latter.
The New Silk Road is China’s commitment to broaden Africa as a major trading partner. The New Byte Road is America’s efforts to own Africa’s digital space through its world leading digital empires. I referred my audience to a recent piece I wrote in the Harvard Business Review. As it stands now, America is winning the bytes; China is running the show on atoms. Europe needs a strategy, for a space.
The unbounded and unconstrained nature of the internet has made it possible for competition to become global. Online, geography does not protect a company from competition. That unbounded competition is a challenge for local entrepreneurs. African consumers know about the best global products, and local ones are expected to match them on price and quality. The elite global technology firms typically offer better solutions at zero cost.
That is the paralysis we are seeing in telecommunications, in e-commerce, and across the broad ICT sector. When WhatsApp makes texting and calls free (in some cases with better quality), local telecom giants bleed cash. When Instagram provides an amazing gallery to display products, local newspapers struggle.
During the Questions & Answers section, the business-owners zeroed in on the digital trajectory in Africa. They certainly understand the power of the Internet. I used that moment to also explain that China and U.S. are ferociously fighting a “new war” I have called the New Knowledge War. The results are already out; the top 20 digital firms belong to either U.S. or China. These are empires upon which future digital systems would be anchored upon.
I spoke for 2 hours including the Q&A; the venue was Square Brussels Meeting Centre.
Meanwhile, I will be running a workshop in Lagos later this year on innovation. I would like to have you as a participant; register here.