A show­piece of African tech en­trepreneur­ship

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Andile Ma­suku is a broad­caster and en­tre­pre­neur based in Johannesburg. He is the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer at AfricanTechRoundup. com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Ma­sukuAndile and The African Tech Round-up @african­roundup. Andile Ma­suku

AFROBYTES Tech Con­fer­ence is un­doubt­edly Europe’s pre-em­i­nent Africa-fo­cussed gath­er­ing of en­trepreneurs, busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives, in­vestors, aca­demics, politi­cians and me­dia in­ter­ested in act­ing on the com­mer­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties pre­sented by Africa’s tech and in­no­va­tion in­dus­try.

Ear­lier this month, the event was held in the heart of Paris for the sec­ond year in a row, and once again en­joyed the en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port of France’s largest em­ployer fed­er­a­tion, the Move­ment of the En­ter­prises of France (Medef).

It’s worth men­tion­ing that Medef is a cross-in­dus­try or­gan­i­sa­tion that has more than 750 000 mem­ber firms – with at least 90 per­cent of them be­ing small and medium en­ter­prises with fewer than 50 em­ploy­ees.

They are well-known for their non-apolo­getic pro-busi­ness lob­by­ing ef­forts within France, across the EU and around the world. Ba­si­cally, they mean busi­ness.

Hence, Medef’s sup­port for the Afrobytes Tech Con­fer­ence un­der­lines the sym­po­sium’s de­cid­edly “a lit­tle less con­ver­sa­tion and lit­tle more ac­tion” tone – a vibe de­lib­er­ately set by its con­ven­ers, Am­min Yous­souf and Haweya Mo­hamed; French cit­i­zens who hail from the Co­moro Is­lands and So­ma­lia re­spec­tively.

Medef pres­i­dent Pierre Gat­taz kept it real in his open­ing ad­dress at Afrobytes Con­fer­ence 2017. He said that given Africa’s growth prospects, his or­gan­i­sa­tion can’t af­ford to ig­nore the fact that Africa is not only poised to de­liver in­es­timable value in terms of be­ing a lu­cra­tive mar­ket for French goods and ser­vices, but also that the con­ti­nent will un­doubt­edly be a handy fi­nance source for French busi­nesses in the fu­ture.

Rub­bing shoul­ders

De­spite the plea­sure of rub­bing shoul­ders with the likes of (name-drop alert) Re­becca Enon­chong of App­sTech, Mar­sha Wulf of LoftyInc Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment, Emeka Afigbo of Face­book Africa, Ash­ley Lewis of Lifty Inc, Fa­toumata Ba of Ju­mia, Baba Zoumanigui of IBM, Tayo Akinyemi of the World Bank Group and even the so­cial me­dia sen­sa­tion that is the Kenyan TV jour­nal­ist, Larry Mad­owo – my per­sonal high­light at this year’s Afrobytes Con­fer­ence had to be mod­er­at­ing a panel dis­cus­sion on how Africans might par­tic­i­pate more mean­ing­fully in the emerg­ing dig­i­tal econ­omy.

The panel fea­tured three guest dis­cus­sants, in­clud­ing Larry Christo­pher Bates, pres­i­dent and chief se­cu­rity of­fi­cer at BitLand Global – a firm which aids ef­forts to democra­tise prop­erty own­er­ship by help­ing Africans har­ness the com­mer­cial po­ten­tial of their land through the use of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy.

It is Bates who gave me the most can­did re­sponse to a ques­tion I asked re­gard­ing the im­por­tance of es­tab­lish­ing the dif­fer­ence between ac­cess and in­clu­sion within the con­text of the new dig­i­tal econ­omy.

In his re­sponse, he touched on the need for Africans to wake up to the im­por­tance of own­ing and clev­erly lever­ag­ing key as­sets such as land, in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and even en­ergy and broad­band in­fra­struc­ture, if we are to con­trol our des­tiny as a con­ti­nent.

Over the past cou­ple of weeks, I couldn’t help but hear Bates’ sen­ti­ments echo­ing in my mind as Kenya in­au­gu­rated its $3.2 bil­lion (R41.8bn) Chi­nese-funded rail­way, as Malawi landed a $72.4 mil­lion line of credit from the World Bank to fund na­tional digi­ti­sa­tion projects, and prior to that, when Google an­nounced the ex­ten­sion of the Pro­ject Link pro­gramme which was first ini­ti­ated in Kam­pala, Uganda, back in 2011. Google later re­named the ven­ture, CSquared – no doubt, once they had es­tab­lished the com­mer­cial vi­a­bil­ity of what they had ini­tially punted as a non-profit so­cial im­pact ini­tia­tive.

Af­ter all, Pro­ject Link had been ini­tially con­ceived af­ter “a team of Googlers iden­ti­fied a ma­jor bar­rier to more af­ford­able, re­li­able broad­band in Africa: the “lack of fi­bre op­tic net­works in large cities”.

Ap­par­ently, that then in­spired Google’s al­tru­is­tic de­sire to build a state-of-the-art, high-speed ur­ban fi­bre net­work to ser­vice some of the con­ti­nent’s larger cities.

Well, since then 2011 CSquared is said to have built more than 1 640km of fi­bre to ser­vice Kam­pala and En­tebbe in Uganda, and the Ghana­ian cities of Ac­cra, Tema, and Ku­masi.

In­ter­net ser­vice

Through CSquared’s car­rier-ag­nos­tic, whole­sale-only fi­bre net­work, Google claims to ser­vice more than 25 In­ter­net Ser­vice Providers and Mo­bile Net­work Op­er­a­tors.

More re­cently, in the name of ex­pand­ing CSquared’s fi­bre in­fra­struc­ture devel­op­ment ac­tiv­i­ties, doubt­less, to ad­vance uni­ver­sal in­ter­net ac­cess for pop­u­la­tions in the rest of the con­ti­nent, CSquared landed cap­i­tal in­vest­ment re­port­edly worth $100m from the South African tech in­vest­ment group, Con­ver­gence Part­ners, the In­ter­na­tional Fi­nance Cor­po­ra­tion, Mit­sui, and from, yes, you guessed it, Google.

Google hasn’t pro­vided de­tails con­cern­ing what in­ter­est each part­ner holds in CSquared, but I would hazard that they still own the lion’s share of the busi­ness.

I reckon that at this rate, CSquared could eas­ily grow into the con­ti­nent’s most sig­nif­i­cant broad­band fi­bre play over the next five years.

Now, peo­ple who read my tech col­umns and fol­low my commentary via the African Tech Round-up pod­cast of­ten ask me if I am anti-cap­i­tal­ism be­cause I seem to come across as wholly dis­trust­ing of big busi­ness.

While I con­fess that I do pos­sess a quasi-Marx­ist streak, I gen­uinely ap­pre­ci­ate the vir­tu­ous po­ten­tial of re­spon­si­ble forms of cap­i­tal­ism to de­liver so­cio-eco­nomic ben­e­fits for so­ci­ety.

How­ever, here’s what I re­sent. Africa is of­ten treated as this per­pet­ual for­eign aid pro­ject, where “im­pact-driven” case stud­ies are used to sell Africans on how com­mit­ted Sil­i­con Val­ley big­gies are to mak­ing the world a bet­ter place.

Mean­while, be­hind the PR smoke­screen, cal­cu­lated dol­lar-moves are made by the same to try and se­cure mo­nop­o­lis­tic ac­cess to and con­trol over some of the dig­i­tal econ­omy’s most valu­able com­modi­ties – not least, data and broad­band in­fra­struc­ture.

For in­stance, I’m frus­trated by Face­book’s per­sis­tent disin­gen­u­ous take on the so called virtues of Free Ba­sics and the fact that no one seems to ques­tion whether or not it’s in Africa’s best in­ter­est for Google to work to­wards be­com­ing one of Africa’s most sig­nif­i­cant fi­bre in­fra­struc­ture play­ers.

This as Google is si­mul­ta­ne­ously poised to be­come one of the largest for­eign cor­po­rate play­ers in the con­ti­nent’s grow­ing pub­lic re­new­able power scene – cour­tesy of their $12m in­vest­ment in South Africa’s Jasper So­lar Power Pro­ject, and their im­mi­nent as­sump­tion of a 12.5 per­cent stake in Kenya’s Lake Turkana Wind Power pro­ject – Africa’s largest wind en­ergy pro­ject to date.

In prin­ci­ple, I am not against for­eign cap­i­tal mak­ing its way to the con­ti­nent to help us build the in­fra­struc­ture we need to par­tic­i­pate more mean­ing­fully in the dig­i­tal econ­omy, pro­vided we all grasp that “ac­cess” doesn’t equal “in­clu­sion”.

That’s why I ap­pre­ci­ate the Afrobytes Tech Con­fer­ence or­gan­is­ers’ em­pha­sis on the im­por­tance of ap­proach­ing Africa’s tech in­dus­try as a se­ri­ous busi­ness op­por­tu­nity rather than as a for­eign aid pro­ject.

The time for cap in hand ac­tivism is over. It’s time for all Africans (cit­i­zens, en­trepreneurs, in­vestors, cor­po­ra­tions and pol­icy mak­ers) to adopt a bla­tantly com­mer­cial in­vest­ment mind­set and bet on our­selves. That way, we’ll start to see through the pro­claimed value of part­ner­ing with for­eign in­vestors look­ing to strike deals on the ba­sis of “so­cial im­pact” that comes at the ex­pense of cold, hard com­mer­cial ben­e­fits.

Afrobytes Tech Con­fer­ence con­venors, Am­min Yousouf, who hails from the Co­moro Is­lands, and Haweya Mo­hamed from So­ma­lia.

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