Africa’s tech entrepreneurs: going strong against the odds

Over the last decade African countries have experienced significant boost in digital innovations, driven in large parts by the ubiquity of smart phones and relatively cheap 3G networks.  Africa’s digital revolution has led to the birth of new technology enterprises, with significant positive impacts on job creation, income generation and overall national productivity. With the vast global market literally on their fingertips, low barrier to entry, and minimal capital requirements, Africa’s youth entrepreneurs are harnessing their creative talents to create value and make things happen against the odds.

Sadly, the odds are stacking up. Within the past couple of years, many African governments have launched series of crackdowns on social media and digital platforms.  These include heavy taxation on businesses and more stringent restrictions on users. In some cases, governments have outright bans, often during election periods. 

These measures have had significant impact on businesses, slowed down the pace of digital innovations, and hindered the efforts of these entrepreneurs to create job opportunities in a region where poverty and youth unemployment is widespread.

Nevertheless Africa’s tech entrepreneurs are not giving up. They’ve responded to these restrictive, often draconian measures in three major ways:

The first is associated with the rise of tech hubs. Africa’s restrictive policies and challenging institutional environment has led to an increase in small digital enterprises pooling their resources together in hubs. Among others, these hubs provide the opportunity for start ups to overcome resource and technical constraints associated with the liabilities of smallness and newness. They are able to attract more investment, and benefit from mentorship and technical support provided in these hubs. These support and knowledge have been critical for these SMEs to survive the proverbial “valley of death”. Two examples of such hubs are co-creation hub (CcHub) in Lagos Nigeria and iHub in Nairobi Kenya. 

The second response has to do with direct engagement with governments. African digital entrepreneurs have not abandoned their roles as flies in the wall, promoting open governance, holding officials to account, and bringing government closer to the people- often against the former’s wishes. Yet, Africa’s social media influencers and tech gurus are increasingly positioning themselves not merely as government critics but also as digital solutions providers. In one example, the Nigerian founder of open government enterprise BudgIT was invited by the country’s National Assembly to provide technical advice on budgetary issues. His outfit had been a critic of the nation’s fiscal policies and budget implementation processes. In other examples, other enterprises have offered their expertise to help combat cybercrime and offer digital solutions for provision of key public services. In doing these, tech enterprises are able to leverage more influence on government policies to support, rather than hinder, digital enterprises. Some have thrown their hats in the ring to seek elective positions in government. 

The third response is related to the diaspora factor. The past two decades has seen a significant rise in emigration of educates young Africans to developed countries in search of greener pastures. Majority of these have maintained close ties with the continent. They engage actively with citizens at home on a wide range of governance and business issues, mostly through social media channels. These platforms enable them to maintain strong ties with their countries. Due to their emotional and practical attachments, they are heavily invested in ensuring more open and easier access for their compatriots back home. They also increasingly wield significant political influence, if not directly through votes yet but through significant monetary contributions to their countries of origins. Therefore, they have continued to partner with digital and social enterprises back home to promote open governance and provide more supportive institutional environments and infrastructure for businesses. For example, when the popular online newspaper, Sahara Reporters, was subjected to cyber attacks few years ago, Nigerians and Africans in disapora rallied to help, both financially and practically. Currently, as the publisher is held in detention, disapora Nigerians are playing a key role working with civil society organisations on ground to keep this in the forefront of public consciousness. 

Seun Kolade