When Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, came of age, he chose as his muse the Yoruba God of Iron, Ogun.
Ogun is the enlightener, the experimenter and the revealer of the secret technologies of the forge and the anvil.
Why would an artist and political activist choose as his inspiration a god of blacksmiths?
It may have been because Soyinka realized before many of us that Africa’s problems require a creative process that must itself become technic in character. I call this the “technic norm”, a belief that, at a certain stage in a society’s development, those who want change can no longer separate theory from practice. They must become their country’s warriors.
What stage is Africa at now?
The current condition of Africa is one of “creative tumult”; there are too many ideas and not enough people who have the means to get things done.
African innovators must therefore forge themselves into a revolutionary elite, equally comfortable with the politics of change as they are with the business of money.
The gulf between traditional elites and political change-makers has grown wider. The first goal of the African revolutionary elite therefore is to work with some of these traditional elites by showing them that their innovations have the potential to reach scale, and stay there. They have to show them something big to grab their attention.
This will require the rescuing of the African innovation story from the clutches of exotica, from being something that is treated like a fringe movement. This outlook has kept the potential of African products and services from truly reaching the mainstream in most African markets, and holding back innovations that have genuine global export potential.
No wonder that a recent survey of Nigerians found the level of awareness about mobile money to be in the low single digits.
Where can we look for inspiration that African innovators are beginning to heed this advice? In eCommerce and mCommerce.
Electronic commerce is showing signs that it could become a new African super economy, with genuine material power – an Ogun reality. With tens of millions of dollars raised from mainstream investors, millions of users shifting to online shopping, thousands of microfinance operators and many innovators overtaking Africa’s lumbering infrastructure and offering new home security, desktop publishing services and agro-services, the situation has completely changed.
The African innovators at the forefront of this movement are working hard to bring on board the traditional economic drivers. We saw this recently when two of Africa’s largest telecom operators partnered with internet investors to create a new eServices investment behemoth and pledged almost a billion dollars to power the model. Rather than seek to bypass the mainstream economy with its bureaucracy and infrastructure problems, they “turn it from within” and use these inefficiencies as fuel to drive new returns.
In countries like Nigeria, young workers have entered government and are creating pathways through the bureaucracy for cutting-edge innovators to exploit. In Rwanda, entrepreneurs have wormed their way to the very top of the bureaucracy and are promoting new partnerships with small and medium-sized enterprises and state agencies.
The African innovator has long needed a new muse. That muse is now here, and the face of African innovation looks set to change forever.
Author: Bright Simons is President of MPedigree and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader
Image: A worker is seen during the manufacturing process of a computer at a factory in Benha, Egypt, May 18, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany