A Tech Policy ‘Starter Pack’ for African Innovators and Techpreneurs

I know…policy is a put off for many. It’s that space for the old men and government types that we love to hate.

Bears repeating, however, that failing to engage – worse, ignoring- the unfolding ICT policy space is myopic for all ye techpreneurs. I bet you it will only come back to bite you in the derrière.

Think of it this way. You’re building this tech platform/company/solution that will do wonders if/when it takes off. You’ve got a solid proof of concept, and spend your days and nights dreaming of its taking off or achieving unicorn status.

But, there are hurdles. Crazy ones. [Insert them here].

As the tech innovation hype across these developing markets starts to wane- and the very real challenges of scalability and sustainability increasingly nudge the builders and investors alike – I see a couple of paths being taken.

  1. Several entrepreneurs opt to double down on their hustle, and challenge the odds stacked against them, by pivoting or sticking to their identified course, fingers crossed for a breakthrough. The market will sort itself, basically.
  2. Others have taken to articulating these challenges, by writing/speaking about them in various fora, venting the frustrations in the hope that they’re addressed by someone. Often, that ‘someone’ is unidentified, or not well defined.

That someone, and the processes behind the ever-mounting stack of challenges and hurdles is that policy maker you may or may not know. The one currently consuming some report written by some consultants somewhere in London about how they should prioritise government interventions for tech innovation and entrepreneurship. S/he [i.e. the (un)known policy makers) have the crucial keys to improve or completely mess up the market you hope to tap into, especially if your target consumer base is from these parts.

Any way you slice it, policy engagement is unavoidable. As I’ve argued before, many of the frustrations and challenges emerging from the entrepreneurship space are policy issues; bad policy at that.

Yet I understand the challenge and frustrations; why, for many, it’s better or easier to just focus on the hustle.

Policy is murky, long winded, and frankly, quite frustrating. However, I am the first to acknowledge that it’s not up to entrepreneurs and innovators alone to navigate that space, and it’s rather unfortunate to see the push back to the very people building, to also step into the policy formulation/reform game. In an ideal world, the tech policies in respective countries should be a path of minimal resistance; sadly, it is anything but in most cases.

That is why I have been keen on how support functions for our promising tech innovation ecosystems can step in. It is why I have been involved with two processes I will now list here, as an attempt to capture some of the perspectives that tech innovators, entrepreneurs, innovation hubs and others have articulated in varied ways.

In both processes, I was involved in conducting the research. I don’t think the outcomes here capture all the issues and opportunities, but I hope they are a start. In how we have presented and packaged them, the aim is to showcase these insights in formats that policy makers can appreciate, and hopefully read.

None of these are particularly representative, rather, they are indicative, and with additional input and contextualisation, can be taken up for policy engagement in various countries (or so we hope).

Behold, the proposed tech policy starter pack. Comments, additions most welcome (including in the comments section below).

I would also love to hear thoughts and ideas on how tech entrepreneurs and innovators envision support for engaging in the policy/regulatory shaping spaces, both national and international. That’s my jam, fam, so hit me up in the comments section below, or on Twitter: @NiNanjira! 

Here goes:

Continue reading “A Tech Policy ‘Starter Pack’ for African Innovators and Techpreneurs”

On Writing about Tech in Africa (part 2): our toothbrushes, toilets and bulbs

 Back in 2009, some journalist -perhaps trying to make her story about “the pearl of Africa” land some eyeballs- stated that Uganda was “a place where cell phones could outnumber light bulbs.”

Now, that little nugget has morphed into the widely parroted factoid, that there are more mobile phones than bulbs in Uganda. It’s been cited in keynotes, presentations, maybe even helped advance some careers.

By 2010, we were being regaled with a UN statistic, that there are more people on earth with access to cellphones, than to toilets. It’s only upon digging deeper that one finds that the toilets benchmark for this factoid, is the flush toilet. Assumedly, it is the gold standard of toilets to access.

This particular statistic has been unleashed more specifically on India; though it is cited as both about the world in general, India specifically, and with pepperings of the country of Africa.

It is a tragic irony to think in India, a country now wealthy enough that roughly half of the people own phones,” so many people “cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet,” UN University director.

Perhaps one day cell phones will bring to half the African population something else they lack — clean toilets.” The World Bank’s Chief Economist, MENA region.

Friends, it’s now 2016, and we are comparing mobile phone access to…drumroll please…toothbrushes.

Behold, the rush to quantity Africa, and indeed the “developing world”. We are our mobile phones, toilets, bulbs and toothbrushes.

Have pointed out severally how uncritical and condescending these kinds of comparatives are; even more unfortunate is we — as Africans, or “global Southerners” — tweet, ooh and aah at these nonsensical references.

So it seems the number of bulbs, for instance, is picked from household surveys, as this Ugandan who was just as tired of that uncritically trumpeted statistic about his country sought to investigate.

Other than to tingle the senses of those excited about “Africa rush 2.0″, what do such findings – flaunted and cited ever so excitedly – do for the perceptions of Africa, not just to the rest of the world, but also ourselves?

As someone rightfully asked, what logical policy conclusion does one draw from these stats? I mean…toothbrushes?

Am I too cynical to think this part of the bigger digital colonialism creeping upon us? Or the digital era’s version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?

One’s tingly senses are activated when one grows increasingly familiar with how such projects have worked to keep us in need, lacking.

Of toothbrushes, toilets and bulbs in Africa. And the mobile phone takeover.

I am the first to acknowledge that there is a dearth of data to help many actors make sense of the continent. This is more so in certain parts than others, such as the absence altogether, of Central Africa on many maps.

But for crying out loud, this has got to stop. What next, more mobile phones than coconut trees? (Oh snap, did I just inspire some Africa research “expert”?)

On mobile phones, we need a serious push back on the thinking/operational hypothesis that a mobile-first Africa will make for a digitally transformed continent aside from generating consumers for products that will predominantly be from elsewhere.

For all our excitement about Silicon Savannah, most emerging market countries — including India — are rounding errors when we look at their share of global revenues on the app stores. Revenue is concentrated into a handful of markets that take the lion’s share back into their own countries, with local sales from local developers almost absent except for unique markets such as China, South Korea and Japan,Winners and Losers in the Global App Economy.

No app will make up for a lack of political will.

So, for crying out loud, enough of these insulting comparatives. There simply is no other way to rationalise that kind of framing.

And as always, Africa is not a country. There is no buy one, get 53 free.

Just stop it.

PS: Some may also want to scroll through “On Writing about Tech in Africa“.

On Writing about Tech in Africa

(As posted on Medium)

Read an article (on international media) lately about some tech startup or innovation in Africa? Have the words “disrupt”, “revolutionise”, or phrases like “the next big thing” appeared? Have you found yourself believing that there’s a “tech revolution” across the continent (country) of Africa?

It is understandable that the rest of the world (Africans included) is now a bit more aware, and perhaps (more) vested in the “Africa Rising” narrative. As a friend once put it: “Africa rising ; someone opened the oven early, the yeast is not ready”.

It is tedious, to always be on the reactive side of matters Africa — be it in the political, humanitarian , and now, tech framing. The instruments of global opinion-shaping media are skewed to the global North, even though there are, and have been concerted efforts to “Africanise” them; solutions offered to the “time to tell our own African stories” mission, if you will.

Reading piece after piece about African tech startups or tech innovations, coupled with working in one of the emerging ecosystems in “the home of the Silicon Savannah”, I have noticed the range of lexicon used to describe them. “The [insert Silicon Valley enterprise] equivalent of Africa/country X in Africa.” “ Startup X or innovation Y will “revolutionise” or “disrupt” industry Z.” Share others that come to mind.

It is tiring, and irking. But more importantly, it’s problematic for a number of reasons.

I appreciate that media works in a certain way — globally, regionally and internationally. Sensationalism seems to be here to stay. All that aside, my contention really is with the tech determinism that is created in framing nascent endeavours as “the next big thing(s)”. And it is interesting to note that many of the innovations/start-ups are often still trying to figure out what their business, profit and sustainability models are/will be, perhaps even trying to grasp the operating environments, the challenges and opportunities preceding the tech. Forward thinking is always welcome, but creating a false determinism, especially given the oft missing context of operational environments is, in my opinion, tainting the outlook on tech in Africa, by Africa, for Africa. I also don’t believe that many, if any of the startups or innovators interviewed (when interviewed) get to review the final drafts of these media articles. Even if they do, one would not fault them for not correcting the descriptions created, or for even performing to the media spotlight (no such thing as bad press, right?) . In an attention economy, you have to do what you can to gain traction, as many probably argue. It’s not to say that the industries in which tech innovations or startups operate or innovate won’t be disrupted; the framing in many a news article or documentary creates the false notion that this will happen in the next year, or two. And when that doesn’t happen, whispers of “why aren’t we seeing another M-PESA” start to be heard. Impatience starts to creep in. Any new or recycled attempt to figure a role for tech in some sector catches the hungry media’s radar. Another news article is quickly and eagerly put together. Yet another “next big thing”, another startup/innovation that will “revolutionise” or “disrupt”. A vicious cycle.

For our dear friends in local and international media who feel vested in writing about tech in Africa, note the following: You are not necessarily helping by using such bold declarations and descriptions, especially if research or background assessments to establish the context(s) around which these innovations/startups emerge is/are not part of the consideration. If you haven’t been informed already, please understand: technology is NOT a panacea. I do see why it is so tempting to make that the case for Africa. What were your news organisations writing about Africa (local and regional ones included) five, ten years ago, after all? A startup or innovation in, say, edtech, will not “revolutionise” learning. At best, it will amplify the preceding efforts. At worst, it will create further divides.

Kenya Tech Community’s ‘Dalliance’ with the Goverment

It is no doubt that many Kenyan stakeholders have benefitted from the ‘Silicon Savannah’ and ‘East Africa ICT Hub’ monikers bestowed upon Kenya. It is also no doubt that ICTs are a player in virtually every aspect of society and industry today, and are here to stay. All stakeholders are clamouring to establish their significance and how their roles and responsibilities will be disrupted by digital technologies and the Internet.

Kenya’s tech sector has been lauded, and recently even ‘validated’ by the government of President Kenyatta. From government investment into incubators, as is the case with Nailab, to the famed recent impromptu visit by His Excellency to iHub, Nailab and other tech companies housed at the Bishop Magua Centre (including a shout out in the State of the Nation address) and even funding commitments to establishing entities like Enterprise Kenya, to be co-facilitated with players from the tech sector.

Some have said the community is currently experiencing a ‘honeymoon phase’, with government. This isn’t a bad thing, as it has taken lots of hard work for the tech players to gain rightful recognition. However, players in this scene, and in particular, local tech folk with access to the highest office of the land, will do well to learn from the missteps and relationship dynamics that the Kenyan government has had, especially with the media and civil society. The Public Benefit Organisations (PBO) Act, The Media Council Bill and Kenya Information Communications (Amendment) Act come to mind. How media and civil society actors have found themselves battling against problematic clauses in these laws provides a cautionary tale for the nascent ICT sector.

As the tech space expands, government is also looking at regulating it, and this could be done in ways that undermine the emerging local scene, if caution is not heeded. Laws proposed and government thinking around data privacy and cyber security, for instance, do have implications that may complicate e-commerce and Internet freedom. The Security Laws Amendment Act had clauses that touched on ICT components, in particular Internet and social media use for communication. While wining, dining and basking in government/The Presidency’s attention, those representing the tech sector–from the non-government/non-profit hubs, to private sector tech companies and everyone in between — should keep a very watchful eye on what the Executive and Legislative arms of government are doing, boldly or stealthily, as far as investment commitments, regulations and laws go, even as they hope to further their agendas. It would be a tragedy to have been coopted into an agenda that undermines the future of the ICT sector.

The tech sector, however defined, does not exist in a vacuum. The battles between government and media and civil society also have an impact on how this cross-cutting sector pans out. Bloggers for instance, who fall within media and civil society, rely on ICTs for their work. Rules and regulation attempts, impact their work. The tech community also expands to the consumers of products and innovations. They should be kept in mind as well.

 

There is ongoing talk for players in the tech community (innovators, business operators and others) should have their own association, to serve as a voice of the technology sector in Kenya. How that shapes up will be interesting, as we also figure out what and who comprises the tech sector/community in Kenya. Recent history bears lessons for those at the forefront to heed, as we forge as ‘the home of the Silicon Savannah’.
This article also appeared on the Daily Nation, on April 23, 2015.