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 750000 member firms - with at least 90percent 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 $3.2billion (R41.8bn) Chinese-funded railway, as Malawi landed a $72.4million 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 1640km 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 12.5percent 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.

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.