Lessons in innovation from the African Continent – a sign of things to come?
By Dave Glazier, Consultant at Freethinking
Last week the Kenyan government announced that it’s laid the foundation stone for what’s to become Africa’s tallest building – the 900 feet, 70-storey, and $200bn development known as The Pinnacle.
The Pinnacle’s sleek glass and steel lines arching towards the sky will
replace Johannesburg’s Carlton Centre, an unimaginative 1970s rectangle of concrete, as the continent’s tallest structure.
It’s an analogy for a broader shift, as the imagination and ambition of other countries across the continent, starts to eclipse our own achievements in South Africa. In fact, projects like The Pinnacle might become regular news, as a perfect storm of many converging forces promise to change the continent’s fortunes:
1. Rapid technological breakthroughs
No less than 16 undersea cables are now wrapped around African shores, connecting us to datacentres, customers and online ecosystems in every corner of the world. Over 100 000 kilometres of fibre routes now weave their way throughout the continent.
While the World Bank pegs South Africa’s internet penetration at just over 50% of the population, the likes of Morocco (57%) and The Seychelles (58%) are racing away at rapid pace. Even more incredibly, 47% of Nigeria’s population of 190 million are now internet-enabled.
And then there’s Africa’s ‘killer stat’ in the realm of technology: That 81% of Africans now own a mobile phone (source: International Telecommunication Union).
Businesses are also expected to benefit from new tech booms. 2017 has seen three major global players (Microsoft, T-Systems and IBM) announce that they will soon serve hyperscale Cloud services directly from African shores – allowing local businesses to build the kind of high-volume data crunching, artificial intelligence and automation services that were previously out of reach.
“The imagination and ambition of other countries across the continent is starting to eclipse our own achievements in South Africa”
2. Solution-focused mindset
From soil sensors and automated irrigation systems to deal with vast geographies, to IV monitoring tools that address shortages in nursing care, to 3D-printed prosthetics in South Sudan, Africa is truly a hotbed of innovation and problem-solving.
In one of the most-famous recent examples, the need to quickly transport life-saving blood across Rwanda’s mountainous regions led to the adoption of long distance drone technology, which will culminate in the world’s first fully-fledged drone airport.
Expect more world-leading innovations. After all, as the proverb states: “necessity is the mother of invention”. Armed with more powerful tools, Africa’s creative spirit will unleash dramatic changes in the way we live.
3. Escaping legacy thinking
In his Harvard Business Review article, Bureaucracy must die Gary Hamel notes that an estimated 30% of all corporate activity is not merely unnecessary, but actually dangerous or counterproductive to value creation.
Generally speaking, younger and smaller firms across the continent (especially those with digital business models) can avoid the cultural inertia preventing older firms from transforming.
Instead of getting tied up by endless red tape, African businesses can build their systems and processes for the digital era, focusing on what really matters and building more efficient, more agile businesses.
4. Demographic tailwinds
It’s well-known that Africa is home to the world’s youngest population – with 200 million people currently aged between 15 and 24. This is in stark contrast to developed Western European and Asian countries, where population growth is stagnating or even reversing.
These dynamics create an immense opportunity, as the energy and creativity of our young population fuels the next wave of technology or business innovations. We’re perfectly positioned to provide services for the global markets of Millennials and Gen Z users – which now account for the majority of global consumer bases.
From a financial perspective, exchange rates against major international currencies – like the US Dollar, the Euro of the Yuan – mean that African businesses can operate off a lower cost base than most international peers.
With access to the same technology, the same knowledge, and the same skills development tools, there’s nothing stopping African firms from gaining outsized shares of global consumer markets.