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How will new technology transform Africa? [AfricaCom]

Technology has already had a massive effect on Africa. So much has been said, and so many words have been written, about how the continent has leapfrogged more developed markets (especially when it comes to mobile) that it’s become cliche. While there’s still truth in those cliches, the vast majority of those developed markets have caught up with, and in many cases overtaken Africa in areas where it once led.

That doesn’t mean that the rate of technological change in Africa has slowed down — the top 10 connected African countries already represent half a billion internet users for instance — but it’s clear that there’s still plenty to be done when it comes to making the most of that change. It’s also clear that if Africa is to make the most of the opportunities available to it, then it can’t afford to become a dumping ground for international technology players.

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Those were among the messages from a panel discussion on how new technologies could transform the African continent. The discussion took place at AfricaCom, the continent’s largest technology and communications conference, and comprised Cisco’s VP of Services in Middle East, Africa and Russia Andy Macdonald, Google South Africa head Luke McKend, Orange Cameroon CEO Elisabeth Medou, and Convergence Partners founder Andile Ngcaba.

The panelists were also clear that in order to embrace the opportunities available in Africa then people on the continent need to change the way they look at the technology and communications space.

The opportunities

“Everybody has the same challenges,” said Macdonald, “but what really sets Africa apart…is the size of the of the opportunity and the speed of change”

A large part of that opportunity and change, he added, is being driven by the fact that large parts of Africa’s population are incredibly young.

“Within five years in Africa, 50% of the population will be tech receptive under 25s,” he said adding that “we now have the opportunity to drive the market forward and change things.”

But where does that opportunity really lie?

One thing that’s clearer now than ever is that the opportunities available will primarily be mobile ones. As Ngcaba points out, “we are today a big market of a billion devices”. That in turn opens up other opportunities. According to the Macdonald, one of the biggest opportunties in the video space. “Video is becoming prevalent, and that use of video is driving operators to invest,” he said

McKend however thinks that we need to focus on making the most of the opportunities already present in Africa.

“I’d like to start looking at the opportunity right now…with the technology in front of us,” the Google South Africa head said.

According to McKend, “users are already telling us what they want to do with technology”. As an example of this, he pointed to the fact that “one of the top ‘how to’ searches in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya is ‘how to make money'”.

Innovation and regulation African style

If Africa is to grasp those opportunities, it can’t simply adopt models that have worked elsewhere. That applies as much to innovation as it does to regulation.

On the innovation front, McKend points to Google’s Project Link in Kmapala as an example of what can be done when big players combine with local operators and entrepreneurs to create real opportunities.

Innovation doesn’t just happen at a clever techie level though.

“The crucial thing when we talk about digital Africa,” said Ngcaba, is that “it’s about us developing our own taxonomy, technology, and standards.”

And that’s where regulation can play a part in aiding innovation. Thing is, governments actually have to recognise that. “The government role is very important, said Medou. “They can facilitate or they can change everything”

And once again, that’s about more than just copying policies that have worked elsewhere.

“The African market needs regulation that works in Africa,” said Macdonald.

That’s something that’ll only become more true as the continent becomes increasingly connected. “When all of us are on the internet,” said Ngcaba, “we need to deal with issues yes…but we cannot deal with them in the same way we deal with Telcom issues”.

As McKend noted however, the people of Africa should constantly be trying to push the boundaries of the regulators.

“If you haven’t attracted the attentions of the regulator, you’re not innovating fast enough,” he said.

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