Why Play Catch-up When Africa Can Leapfrog?

I cannot tell you how excited this I.T. nerd was when I heard that the 2013 TransformAfrica Summit was 1) being held in Rwanda, and 2) being live streamed for my enjoyment in Hong Kong. You see, Rwanda has a special place in my heart, having earned a regular slot in my calendar for the last four years, and the changes/progress I’ve witnessed in even that short time have been enormous. From the installation of street lamps lining the roadside of little Samuduha to the opening of Kigali’s first movie theatre to the country winning the title of fastest internet in Africa, there’s no doubt that change is in the air for Rwanda. And just like its fibre optic-enabled broadband, the changes are coming at high speed.

The theme for the 2013 edition of the summit is “The Future Delivered. Today” and the word resounding off the tongues of panelists and participants alike is “leapfrog.” Ashish Thakkar of MARA Group shared how when asked by an American the question “When is Africa going to catch up?” he simply responded, “We’re not going to catch up. We’re actually going to lead the way.”  The anticipated enabler for this? ICT—Information & Communications Technology. And what exactly do they mean by leapfrogging? They mean exactly that: leaping ahead, over milestones others have set, and achieving milestones that the rest of the world has yet to conceive. The rise of mobile money is a clear example. Why invest in infrastructure like physical bank branches when customers in rural areas can open and manage accounts through mobile devices? Africa’s so-called “mobile revolution,” which has seen mobile penetration jump from 23.5% to 63.5% in just the last six years, is just one example of how the continent’s unique development trajectory is ushering in a new era of innovation. Technology developed to meet the unique needs of a developing continent may be further developed into lucrative, commercially successful applications outside of Africa. And when those prospects become possibilities and those possibilities become realities, it’s no wonder Africa refuses to develop according to others’ traditions and is instead looking to leapfrog.

During Monday’s panel discussion on the SMART Africa Manifesto, Paul Talley of Vanu (Africa) cited that, since 2009, Rwanda has jumped up from 143/185 to 52/185 on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, an incredible achievement. So, to quote Rwanda’s Minister of Youth and ICT Jean Philbert Nsengimana, “Why can’t we start dreaming now?” As he shared visions of rural children learning on tablets to mobile-to-mobile cashless transactions for milk and maize to paperless government offices, I could barely contain the question swirling around in my mind: when is the rest of the world going to clue in? When are we going to start engaging meaningfully with Rwanda and the rest of Africa? When are we going to stop thinking of the developing world as aid recipients and charity beneficiaries and start building offices, establishing partnerships and investing? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling on not-for-profits to pull out or to stop providing the valuable services they are offering to meet the very real needs that continue to exist. But I AM calling on businesses to seriously consider pulling in, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of African economies. Admittedly, there is risk involved. But when the projected returns—both financial and social—are high, why not go with the same old approach: investigate and mitigate?  Because when it comes to corporate social responsibility, maybe the most responsible thing we can do is invest. After all, a boost to the economy will likely have a deeper and more lasting impact than any aid we can offer. And according to ITU Secretary-General Dr. Hamadoun Touré, Africa’s not looking for aid anymore anyway.  They are looking for members of the private sector to invest, to make a profit, to create jobs, to generate wealth and to offer valuable services that are needed by Africans. Minister Nsengimana wants Africa to start talking about ICT with confidence? It’s time the world starts talking about Africa with confidence.

Learn more by visiting the TransformAfrica Summit 2013 website or by joining the live stream, and check out @TASummit2013 and #transformafrica2013 on Twitter.

Are you at TransformAfrica Summit 2013?  Leave a comment or share your thoughts!

Amanda Y. Fung

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