Industries in Depth

How digital is unleashing Africa’s creativity

Mitchell Prather
Managing Director, Djembe Communications
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The average man on the street might not think that Africa is synonymous with technological innovation or entrepreneurialism, but over recent years the region’s extraordinarily young population has embraced them. Growing in tandem with, but perhaps overshadowed by, the booming oil and commodities industries, digital and technology-based businesses are thriving.

As is very often the case in Africa, the kind of businesses that are doing well tend to have a specifically local or regional application, providing African solutions to African challenges. We have seen this in areas such as mobile payment solutions, which have transformed millions of lives and boosted mobile commerce. Developed largely for the ‘unbanked’, mobile payments only require a basic mobile phone (not a smartphone) and as such financially empower those who do not have access to traditional financial services. Services such as Kenya’s M-Pesa enable individuals to deposit, withdraw, transfer money and pay for goods and services using a simple mobile phone. You can even pay for a taxi with your mobile phone in Africa – which is almost impossible in London or New York.

Africa is also enjoying a booming e-commerce sector for those using phones with mobile broadband access and computers. Nigeria’s answer to Amazon, Jumia, provides an entry route for international brands wanting to enter the African market. Since it launched in 2012, it has expanded in to Kenya where it experienced a 900% sales growth in 2014 and is now delivering in 13 countries. A 2014 policy briefing from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) highlights the enormous contribution that e-commerce is making to the growth of SMEs, to non-oil economic diversification and job creation. Reflecting the importance of the ICT sector, many sub-Saharan countries have adopted policies and programmes specifically to support growing businesses in ICT. Kenya’s Vision 2030, for example, identifies such businesses as a major contributor to economic growth, recognising the contribution that innovation and creativity make to economic diversity.

Africa’s creative minds are now being fostered right across the continent, with specialist incubators and funding solutions for start-ups in the digital space. These include the Soap Factory in Angola, the Botswana Innovation Hub, the iHub in Nairobi, MEST in Ghana and BongoHive in Zambia. These vary in size and model – they range from pre-incubators that provide space for ICT entrepreneurs to come together and share ideas, to well-developed virtual clusters such as Jokkolabs that offers members opportunities to work, meet, learn and network.

An important contributor to this economic transformation is the growth of social and digital media, providing businesses with opportunities to market to a much wider, pan-regional audience. African companies are increasingly adopting social media as a tool for business growth and, supported by increasingly reliable broadband infrastructure, it is becoming a core part of the innovation eco-system. That eco-system also includes a nascent app and web development industry. Collectively we are seeing the growth of an exciting new digital age in Africa that is proving to be attractive to the region’s young population and creative minds.

Social media engagement itself has continued to soar during recent years in Africa, largely due to the rapid deployment of high speed broadband for homes and mobile phones. Registered Facebook users surpassed 100 million in 2014 and businesses are becoming wise to the opportunities this level of engagement presents. The General Manager of Uber in Nigeria commented in 2014 that the company no longer bothers to pay for traditional advertising, instead investing in social media platforms for its marketing activity. This move towards social and digital business development in Africa was also summed up by the former CEO of Ecobank (a regional bank operating in 36 African countries) who said that if he had the opportunity to build his business again he would create a digital-only bank.

As Africa becomes increasingly (and rapidly) online, the region’s entire business landscape has the potential to mature and diversify. Through financial inclusion (mobile payments), home-grown e-commerce and public policy that helps technology innovators to flourish; Africa’s creative minds are playing a major role in economic development and job creation. They are also enabling businesses to engage with new customers across borders and in doing so, support an increasingly diverse supply chain across the continent. In this respect, digital communications has the potential to act as the sustainable economic catalyst that the continent’s extractive industries can never be.

Author: Mitchell Prather, Managing Director, Djembe Communications.

Image: Illustrator Sena Ahadji speaks to a client on the phone from her house in Accra, Ghana, July 24, 2015. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko.

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Related topics:
Industries in DepthFourth Industrial RevolutionGeographies in Depth
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