What Africa needs to innovate on a global scale

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It’s common knowledge that Africa, as continent, has been a leading innovator when it comes to mobile. Given that mobile phones arrived on a continent with far less wired infrastructure than the developed world, mobile was adopted incredibly quickly and innovations in the space were equally quick to arise. But what about the future? What kind of conditions are needed to ensure that the next generation of African innovators has the freedom to build products services which will reach out to the rest of the world.

Technology is not a barrier
Technologist and blogger Erik Hersman reckons that technology is not a barrier to innovation. Instead he emphasises that the way available technology is used is more important than the actual technology.

The Ushahidi project he helped found is a great example if this. The non-profit software company — its name is Swahili for Testament — develops free and open source software for information collection, visualisation and interactive mapping and has been used around the world for everything from disaster management to election monitoring.

When the project first went live in 2008, the mapping and tracking technology behind it was already four years old, but it’s being widely used today.

“Technology built in Africa can have an impact on the wider world,” says Hersman.

He points to the various Maker Faire programmes he has been a part of in East Africa as a demonstration of how much practical innovation there is in Africa.

Mobile is the future
Hersman firmly believes that much of the innovation we’ll see in the future, not just on the continent but globally too, will be on the mobile web.

According to Hersman, this is partly because people are killing innovation on the web. “People are building walls,” he says, referring to the fact that number of large tech interests have completely closed their systems and are forced to rely on innovation from within.

As African mobile operators try to protect their business, though, they’re in danger of suffering from the same problem, he says.

Open everything up
Hersman thinks that even the darling of African mobile commerce, M-Pesa, “has stifled its own growth by not making its API available”.

M-Pesa was major disruptor, but he feels that a combination of regulations in other countries and being part of the Vodafone superstructure has seen it miss opportunities to become a truly global force.

If innovation is to succeed on the continent then people need to embrace open source and make their APIs available, he says.

David Webber, COO of mobile social networking giant MXit buys into this particular viewpoint:

“The days of organisations trying to innovate on behalf of a community are gone”.

In fact, Webber claims that MXit itself is looking at opening up its API so that the social network’s wider community can help it innovate further.

Less regulation
Neil Ahlsten , who heads up new business development for Google Africa is similarly enthusiastic about open APIs but believes that operators and governments need to work together to decrease regulation on the continent for innovation to be viable.

“Google has not integrated with M-Pesa, I would love to integrate with M-Pesa,” he says. The problem is that regulations mean it would have to interface with all the other mobile money platforms in whatever countries it wanted to operate in.

Hersman shares this sentiment, pointing out that “where you find friendly regulators, you find innovation”.

If the continent can get these things right, however, then Africa stands a chance of housing some of the world’s great startup environments.

Africa is becoming more and more connected which means that data is becoming cheaper and more readily available.

Add this to the right conditions for innovation and, says Hersman, “there’s nowhere else you’d want to be if you’re a startup”.

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