OPINION: Multinationals still dominate the African tech space
CAPE TOWN - There was very little African about AfricaCom. The biggest Africa focused technology, media and telecoms event in the world hosted technology companies operating in the African continent in Cape Town under the theme: Mapping Africa’s journey towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The largest gathering by technology corporates in Africa was dominated by multinationals who had great things to say about Africa and its technology future.
Many multinational tech companies that attended the event view Africa as the last frontier and their approach has been focused on bringing their own technology to be used on the continent.
These are just some of the major multinational companies that were dominating in the gathering.
HUAWEI - a Chinese multinational networking and telecommunications equipment and services company headquartered in Shenzhen, Guangdong.
ERICSSON - a multinational networking and telecommunications company headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden.
MICROSOFT - an American multinational technology company with headquarters in Redmond.
HITACHI - a Japanese multinational conglomerate company headquartered in Chiyoda, Tokyo.
EQUATEL HEALTH - a United Kingdom based health tech company that provides voice, data, VAS, mobile money and internet solutions to the under-served and rural communities.
INTELSAT - headquartered in Luxembourg, Intelsat operates a fleet of 52 communications satellites and is one of the world’s largest fleets of commercial satellites.
YAHCLICK - a high performance satellite broadband service company, owned by Mubadala, the investment arm of the government of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
The minimal presence of African tech companies at AfricaCom reveals a bigger challenge facing Africa in the digital era. Currently, Africa has no major technology player of an equal size as Uber, Alibaba, SAP and others, which are giants on their continents and dominating in the African continent as well.
The few that are in existence are simply resellers of multinational software and hardware, which is in itself a challenge that requires the attention of African tech leaders.
Many who argue against the idea of African-owned technology advance the view that technology in itself should be boundary-less, which means that it should not matter where the technology originates.
They believe that what should matter is its application in the local environment. This view is correct, as in some cases there’s no need to re-invent the wheel for the sake of creating another tool.
The only challenge with this view is that there’s more to technology than just the application.
Technology can be a tool for control and economic power. Those who create it can be in a position to control economic activity which can be detrimental to economic sovereignty of a country.
To illustrate, Uber (a US technology company) right now is in the position to control public transport prices on the African continent, it’s in the position to control labour in the transport sector. In future, Uber can, with just a switch of a button, dictate how transport moves and how a transport economy performs, in fact, it will influence traffic behaviour.
The same can be said about other technology services offered by multinational companies on the African continent.
No single state or local business community should allow so much control by an external entity.
This view does not mean that competition by multinational entities should be curtailed or prevented.
The African continent should create its own technology infrastructure for true independence.
The African leaders should be careful that colonialism does not make its return in the form of multinational technology. Any form of technology advancement in the African continent should include a combination of multinational technology presence and locally developed and owned technology infrastructure.
The approach going forward should not be just using multinational technology in Africa, it should be the development of African technology for African challenges. The approach towards developing African technology should include:
African governments using African tech: African governments still rely on multinational software to run their own governments and country operations. Governments are uniquely positioned to propel locally developed technology by supporting initiatives that aim at developing local technology.
African investors investing in African developed technology: International investors have played a critical role in supporting local tech start-ups so far. The missing link in the tech investment space are African investors who understand local environment and with a passion to develop local technology.
African businesses using African technology: African businesses are major users of technology in the African continent, however, they use mainly multinational technology solutions. They can create African technologies by committing to the idea of using mainly technology developed in the African continent.
In order to build African technologies African governments, investors and businesses will have to take a stand and commit to the development of an African tech industry.
Initially, this approach may include using multinational technologies in the beginning. However, that should not be the end. The long-term goal should be to leverage multinational technology and built upon it and be inspired by it and build technologies that can solve African challenges and technologies that embrace African value systems.
MTN is one of the few truly African telecoms company that African technologists should be proud of and emulate. Africa needs companies such as MTN to truly deliver on its vision to use technology to advance society.
Other tech start-up companies that are worth celebrating in the African continent are SweepSouth and WumDrop. SweepSouth led by Ayesha Pandor and WumDrop by Simon Hartley are companies that should receive the support across the board to become the next MTN.
Africa needs companies such as MTN to truly deliver on its vision to use technology to advance society.
Other great tech companies that are worth celebrating in the African continent are SweepSouth and WumDrop. SweepSouth led by Ayesha Pandor and WumDrop by Simon Hartley are companies that should receive support across the board to become the next MTN.
SweepSouth is an African platform that enables cleaners to be economically active by connecting them with people who are in search of their services.
WumDrop is an entity that could one day become the Fedex of Africa through its delivery platform.
WumDrop, SweepSouth and similar start-ups in the next 10 years should dominate at AfricaCom. In order to achieve such an objective, something serious needs to happen in support of the African technologies.
Wesley Diphoko is the head of the Independent Media Lab and the founder of the Kaya Labs.