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As the founder of the non-profit African Institute of Technology and Fasmicro(AFRIT), Africa’s first integrated circuit design house, Nigerian academic and inventor Ndubuisi Ekekwe is a strong campaigner for Intellectual Property Rights as a means of monetising technological innovation in Africa. He also believes that a change in educational mindset and an emphasis on hardware production are two factors that will help propel Africa’s success in the technology sector.
Ekekwe is a TED fellow. In his “idea worth spreading” he writes:
Technology capability will offer the best pathway to help developing nations emerge from their under-developments. This is supported by the fact that generations that lived apart centuries ago did not experience differences in their living standards. But with the advent of different technologies, the world has seen expansion of gross world product. This expansion has been fueled by productivity, primarily in developed nations.
Africa is still ‘operating’ in the era of pre-industrial age where technology is not used (at large scale) to drive business processes and create wealth. Helping these nations to understand that technology is the most vital instrument of global competitiveness and without it, no nation can be economically viable in the long term despite the abundance of minerals and hydrocarbons matters. A redesign of Africa’s economy is needed and that must be driven by the power of technology under strong intellectual property laws which will protect innovations and inventions
Memeburn: What do you think are the fundamental issues preventing the development of technological innovation in Africa?
Ndubuisi Ekekwe: The biggest problem is the structure of our educational system: We still educate people to get prepared to get jobs after graduations and not necessarily to change their worlds. Besides education, you have a very challenging economic ecosystem that makes it hard for people to take risks. How can you leave a job as Head of IT in a big bank to start a new business? It does not happen easily in Africa because we have no social safety nets.
MB: In many of your talks you push for Intellectual Property Rights, and you blame the lack of technological growth and innovation within Africa largely on this problem. Why is this?
NE: If you visit African cities, as I do regularly, you will notice that there are many quality breakthrough ideas and inventors, just as we have in America. For all of them, one thing is missing — there is no path to monetise their ideas. This is because they’re not sure anyone could protect that investment in Africa; anyone could copy the idea with no consequence.
MB: Do you feel that Africa has more of a chance competing in the hardware arena than it does in software?
NE: Yes. If you look at it, we simply do software on foundations people have created — we write on .net, Java, Oracle, C, etc, and have yet to create any platform that is indigenous. Contrast that with hardware, where it is unbelievably easier to compete if someone shows you how to make it. The East understands that when you have the labour force with decent education, you can ramp up that sector in any economy and get paid. So, they make the hardware and people have to pay for them while we spend efforts on the software, say Apps, and hardly know how to monetise them because we are competing against Americans and Europeans.
MB: AFRIT holds seminars and workshops across the continent, but do you have long term involvement within universities and schools in all of these countries?
NE: AFRIT is an NGO but after a while I noticed that talking was not going to change Africa. So, I founded First Atlantic Semiconductors and Microelectronics Ltd (Fasmicro.com), which signs agreements with governments while providing services that no company in Africa, to our knowledge, can do.
MB: How much support does AFRIT receive from governmental bodies across Africa?
NE: AFRIT played a huge part in helping the African Union single currency debate, and my paper on single currency was well received in the AU congress. We work with UN, World Bank, five governments in West Africa, among others, and we’ve revamped the curricula at many universities. AFRIT has never accepted any monetary donation from any organisation. Why? I tell people that Africa’s problem is not money; it is thinking big.
Ndubuiso Ekekwe is a keynote speaker at the Tech4Africa conference in October 2011, Africa’s premier web, mobile and technology conference. Other speakers include Herman Chinery-Hesse, Adam Duvander, Cennydd Bowles and Jonathan Gosier.
Questions contributed by Rowan Puttergill