- May 7, 2018
- Posted by: Kwezi Tabaro
- Category: Uncategorized
The world has been captivated by the latest American super-hero Film “Black Panther” which portrays a fictional African country, Wakanda, that despite its intentional isolation has developed technology that is superior than any other country. What has been intriguing about the movie is its portrayal of African agency and how it has avoided tropes often used to portray African countries in Hollywood films.
I however think that perhaps the best thing to have come out of the movie is how it has reignited debate on Africa’s place in the global technology sphere. Far from the fictional world of Marvel comic books, and into the real world, Africa still lags behind other continents in technological advancement and adoption. Africa’s global scientific output is still under 2% and in 2015 the whole continent produced just about as many scientific publications as a single European country, the Netherlands.
These were the thoughts running in my mind when in February a friend approached me about an opportunity to speak about innovation in the East African region at the sixth CMS Africa Summit in Kigali, Rwanda. The event was hosted by CMS Africa, an organization that champions the use of open source technologies across Africa. Previous summits had happened in Nairobi, Kampala and Abuja.
The subject of my presentation the CMS Africa Summit was something that had occupied our conversations at the LéO Africa Institute throughout 2017, culminating in the 2017 Economic Forum that focused on the impact of disruptive innovations on East African economies today—Innovation and East Africa as a new frontier for what you would call Africa’s technology “renaissance”.
The nation of Wakanda portrayed in Black Panther is located somewhere in East Africa; and it is perhaps no coincidence the same region has distinguished itself as a technology adoption leader in Africa. Whether it is through MPesa in Kenya, an application that has brought financial inclusion to the doorsteps of 20 million Kenyans; or m-SCAN in Uganda, a smart device developed by Makerere University students to detect maternal complications among young women; or the Tap&Go application developed by Patrick Buchana, a young Rwandan, to ease public transport in Kigali, many young East African minds are at the forefront of this innovation economy. They are leaders in that sense.
Speaking at CMS Africa, my aim was to connect this leadership in various spheres to what else is happening in our countries, and how we can get the most innovative minds to apply their solutions to where they are most required.
— Talkative Rocker (@beewol) March 17, 2018
Tap&Go, and M-Scan are great ideas, but their potential can only be fully realised if they spread, and are adopted, beyond the countries in which they originated. And for this to happen they will need to find fertile and “habitable” ground that embraces three key things: talent, tolerance and diversity.
How do we capture the bright minds in our countries, expose them to the right networks that will support them to cause impact, and better still retain them? Also, how do we position our countries to become magnates of talent? While the region has not been short of entrepreneurial talent (Uganda and Kenya had, after Nigeria, the two highest numbers of applicants for the recently announced Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) Entrepreneurship programme), it has tended to lack the infrastructure to support entrepreneurs and innovators alike. But with spaces like iHub in Nairobi, the Innovation Village in Kampala, and K-Lab in Kigali coming up in the last few years, the future looks bright for the region.
The more ideas allowed to trade in the market place, the better are chances that one of them will cause transformation. The ideal “innovation” capital in East Africa will be that society which is accommodative of big and bold ideas. It will be the place that tolerates the square pegs in circles and unconventional thinkers.
The future/current “creative economy” will also have to embrace a diverse approach to development. Tech is cool and options like Mobile Money have immense potential, but East Africa has another, perhaps even more important resource: the diversity of its people, the future looks bright for those who will speak different innovation “languages”–those who will tinker with innovations in finance, agriculture, music, waste management, alternative sources of energy, etc.
In short, if I was asked to imagine an ideal East African country that would rival Wakanda, that place will have to: 1) attract the best talent, 2) be tolerant and accommodative of big and bold ideas, and 3) be that place in which diversity of people/ideas is welcome.