Three Things I Learned from Serial Entrepreneur Eric Osiakwan: An ICT4D Meetup Recap

Last Thursday 14 June, I had the pleasure to host Eric Osiakwan, a Ghanaian serial entrepreneur and investor – and many other multi-hyphenates extraordinaire – alongside my co-organizer Dama Sathianathan. 

Up from Accra on a month-long visit to Europe on business, Eric, a friend of mine for six years, agreed to give a talk to me and Dama’s meetup group to help shed a spotlight on the current state of the African tech scene. The crux of his talk left me with three takeaways about what can continue to help the tech ecosystem in Africa continue to thrive.

  1. The “Africa Rising” narrative is justified but there are many nuances to consider when it comes to ICTs’ role in this ascendance. One of the most interesting factoids Osiakwan shared during his talk was a comparison between Nigeria and Ghana in terms of the national economic impact that technology has had in the two countries. While I regretfully did not remember to take a photo of this statistic, it was clear that in the case of both countries the impact measured was substantial and on equal or better than other sectors like oil and gas in terms of its contributions. The hype about ICTs and their development impact is easily overstated but as more data streams in from credible analyst firms, we can see that the hype is justifiable in a few cases.

 Osiakwan deftly highlighted this point but also cautioned that structural, cultural, and demographic aspects of the African context mean that even with a boost from tech, no challenge is going to be overcome with the simple wave of an artificially intelligent wand or chatbot. The sooner these challenges are contemplated more seriously (because honestly, this only marginally happening now), the better outcomes we will be able to document as Africa continues its rise.

  1. Mobile is of course a top ICT on the continent, but let’s not forget that featurephones still have a role to play in development. Meetup attendee Isabelle Amazon-Brown raised this point with which many in the room, including myself, agreed. There has been hype around the power of mobile to be used as a tool in development, but for some reason this hype has focused on smartphones, and even recently has been moving beyond smartphones to include blockchain, chatbots, and AI. Why has this march forward been so rapid when so much has yet to be achieved with the mobile phone type that most people in Africa own?Millions still use feature phones, not only in countries in Africa but also in contexts right across the spectrum of infrastructure development. There remains a viable market for services and apps designed for feature phones, yet I fear that it has become “sexier” to build for the latest gizmos. These gizmos tend to be in the hands of the (newly emergent) middle- and upper-class elites, meaning that digital inclusion becomes a notion about something that would be nice to have but that is no longer worth putting in the effort or resources to develop because it’s just not cool enough. Some argue that they’re building on smartphones because that’s the future and what everyone will soon have anyway. Of course, it makes sense to plan ahead, but getting carried away with the next big thing before the potential of the “old” thing (feature phones) has successfully run its course sounds a bit like leaping from 3G to 5G in less than a decade. Oops!
  2. Growth funding for tech startups is an underserved area of the tech ecosystem, and this is the sweet spot where future KINGS of Africa’s digital ecosystem will be cultivated. Eric Osiakwan first developed the concept of the continent’s digital ecosystem KINGS: Kenya, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa. For various factors you can read about in his book (free, open access download in PDF), these five countries are the leaders of Africa’s digital ecosystem, and one important reason is the growing number of tech hubs that can be found in these countries. But for every tech startup there is, invariably there are tons of failures, as is customary when engaging in ventures of this nature (making the so-called Silicon Savannah no different from Silicon Valley in that respect).

Those tech startups that do find success can still be stifled by a lack of access to funding that helps nurture success and encourages further R&D and innovation for the product or service offered. This is where people like Eric can make an impact, by continuing to support growing ventures as they work to remain a viable, self-sustaining company. Yet, this area of investment is often overlooked in Africa – though Eric notes this is changing slowly. Directing more funding to “proven winners” will undoubtedly help amplify existing positive impact. But such funding could also have a further positive side effect of discouraging the far-too-many charlatans who easily access startup funding from competitions and unwitting (but good intentioned) donors as they bounce from one idea to another without real incentives to commit to realizing the success of that idea [breathe]. The overt emphasis on “sexy” startups at the beginning stages of their journey should not be at the expense of supporting those startups that are realizing triple bottom line impact.

Were you at last week’s meetup? What were some of your takeaways? What do you think about the insights I gleaned? Please do sound off in the comments below!

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