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If you want to see real innovation, you should check out Africa. That’s the message Stuff South Africa publisher and editor Toby Shapshak took to the TED Global stage and it’s one that appears to have been incredibly well received by the audience.
Shapshak apparently had the crowd in his hands from the moment he asked who among them had bought a pre-paid SIM card on arriving in Edinburgh, where the conference is being held.
“You’re using African technology,” he says proudly. “‘Pay-as-you-go’ was an idea pioneered in Africa by Vodacom 15 years ago. Now, pay-as-you-go is one of the most dominant forces of economic activity in the world.”
He then showed a map of the world shot at night, showing developed nations with loads of lights on and Africa with much fewer. “It’s a map of innovation. All the places with lots of electricity, innovation isn’t,” said Shapshak. The reason for this, he added, is because if you have electricity, you’re watching TV or playing Angry Birds.
According to the editor, African innovation is real innovation. “People are solving real problems in Africa because we have to, because we have them. And when we solve real problems, we solve them for the rest of the world.”
In passing reference to Square he talks about a company that “liberated the credit card from the point-of-sale terminal,” he said. “But why do you need a credit card?” he asked in reference to M-Pesa, the SMS service which allows Kenyans to perform pretty much all their financial operations, including paying bills, and buying groceries. US$25-million a day — and 40% of Kenya’s GDP — now passes through M-Pesa.
Shapshak compares the mobile revolution to the rapid growth of his hometown Johannesburg. “It’s a mining town built on gold. The gold of today is mobile,” he said.
One example of its value can be found in iCow, an app that allows farmers to track their cattle. “The difference between subsistence and abundance for a farmer is a couple of liters of milk a day,” Shapshak told the audience.
But not only is mobile the gold of today,” Shapshak adds. “We are the gold. We are at the point China was at when its boom years began. And that’s where we are going. We hear the west talk about ‘innovation at the edge.’ Well, of course it’s happening at the edge. In the middle, people are too busy updating Facebook, or maybe trying to understand Facebook’s privacy settings.”
“This is innovation ‘over the edge’,” he concluded. “People call Africa a ‘mobile-only’ continent, but actually it’s ‘mobile-first’”.
The TED Global blog covering the talk describes the crowd at various times as “loving it” and Shapshak getting “laughs and claps”.