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Africa's booming tech space will define the continent's future

A township resident chats on his mobile phone in Hout Bay near Cape Town in this 2006 file photo.


Editor's note: TMS Ruge is co-founder of Project Diaspora, a mobile innovation enthusiast and frequest blogger (see the end of this blog for more information). He was invited to write a blog specifically for our readers on a subject of his choice.

What can I say to Canada about Africa that isn't already in the public realm? Where does one start the conversation about the future of 53 countries and a billion people? How do I enumerate the many ways that Africa is rising right before your eyes in just one article? I can't. Instead I will look at one sector that I find particularly fascinating, and that not many people pay enough attention to. It is also the one sector that affects the social and economic development of the whole continent in one way or another.

In Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, the author made the case that success comes most often as a combination of environment, timing, opportunity and most importantly, after the requisite 10,000 hours of hard work. Gladwell gave us some pivotal facts behind some of the biggest names in the personal computing industry. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Bill Joy, Eric Schmidt, and Scott NcNealy were profiled in great detail. By the time computer programming was catching on - propelled by the invention of computer time-sharing in 1965, the precursor to the internet and cloud computing - these guys were at the prime ages between 13 to 15. By the time each one of them launched their companies and products, they had already spent approximately 10,000 hours perfecting their craft. The results being Microsoft, Apple, Sun Microsystems, and the Java and UNIX platforms.

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I posit that Africa's tech space is positioning itself to offer a similar magical combination of factors that will allow Africa's digerati to define themselves. In 2009, Africa's population topped one billion for the first time in history. A study in 2006 estimated that nearly 45 per cent [pdf]/a> of the continent's population to be under the age of 15! Distinguished economist and author George B.N. Ayittey noted that there is "something" afoot in Africa. A disruption in the fabric of the status quo was under way. He called this group of self-motivated, fast-moving, idea pushers the " cheetah generation."

By the end of 2011, the entire continent of Africa will be connected to no fewer than nine undersea broadband cable initiatives. Africa will have access to over 17 terabytes of designed broadband capacity. If mainframes and punchcards served as the innovation catapult for Silicon Valley's cheetah generation, then connectivity is poised to be Africa's innovation catalyst.

Since mobiles first went mainstream in Africa at the turn of the century, mobile penetration has exploded to approximately 450 million subscribers. Put in perspective, there are more mobile subscriptions on the continent than the population of the United States, Canada and Mexico. Combined! This subscriber base is expect to maintain a 12 per cent annual growth rate through 2013.

My mother lives in a small village outside Masindi town in northwestern Uganda. She does not have electricity or running water, but her most prized possession is her mobile phone. She gets it charged at the local trading centre that uses a car battery and a solar panel to charge mobile devices in the village. The phone is central to her existence. As an ashma sufferer, it is a lifeline in case of an attack; as an elected official, she uses it for community outreach. As the mother of a globe-trotting son, she uses it to keep up with wherever I may be. This is how engrained and important mobile connectivity is in today's Africa. It is also the reason it is going to be the platform of choice for category-leading innovations in the mobile space.

Smart phones - while out of reach for most people across the continent (right now) - will soon see a significant drop in prices. Already we are seeing growth of the mobile web even without high penetration of traditional smart phones. Before you even say that Africa can't afford smart phones, Apple's iconic iPhone is ringing at the register in 13 countries and counting. Canada's very own Research In Motion is enjoying a surging user base in South Africa for its BlackBerry smart phones.

The age of the connected palm is upon us. Within the next 5 years, the communication device in the hands of most Africans will be virtually indistinguishable from a laptop by functionality. Next generation data networks are already in place from various multinational carriers, and starting to roll out 3G data plans across the continent. MTN, Orange, Safaricom and Zain are a few of the carriers already offering 3G data packages for laptops connecting through USB dongles. You can surf on your laptop at 3G speeds within the cities or EDGE speeds if you are "up country." I am filing this very article from Uganda's capital while connected to Orange Uganda's 3G dongle.

6.7 per cent of Africa's population has regular access to the internet. This may look small, but it represent a scotching 1,400 per cent rate of growth since 2000. Nigeria is by far the largest connected market with 24 million users online. South Africa just crossed the 5 million mark. In true leap frogging style so common here in Africa, the trend is heading towards the growth of the mobile web here. A recent survey in Kenya found that 58 per cent of respondents used their mobile phone as a secondary device for accessing the web. Some people are altogether bypassing traditional computing devises like the laptops on their way to regular mobile web use. My driver in Uganda is the proud owner of my last iPhone. He happily paid me a handsome fee to relieve me of my previous generation mobile device. He has never owned a computer, but enjoys checking e-mail wherever he can find a wifi signal.

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All of this development in the connectivity space in Africa isn't short of home-grown innovations. Africa is the world leader in mobile banking and money transfer innovations that are lining the bank accounts of major multinational carriers. In Kenya Zain and Safaricom's MPESA totaled over $4-billion in transactions in 2009. Kenya is also home to the crisis information mapping platform known as Ushahidi, which has been instrumental in Haiti's earthquake disaster relief efforts.

Mobile money transfer innovations are the tip of the iceberg for what's to come. Steve Jobs perfected his hardware acumen at Hewlett-Parkard before founding Apple Computer; Bill Gates and Paul Allen nurtured their passion for code at the computer club at their middle school before Windows shipped as a consumer product. Africa's growing list of technology hubs are the cheetah generation's digital proving grounds Appfrica Labs opened its doors in Uganda in 2008. Since then, three additional tech hubs have opened around the continent. Limbe Labs Ventures Cameroon and Banta Labs in Senegal launched in 2009. Nairobi now has its very own centre of excellence in the iHub innovation center; launched earlier this year to great fanfare. This is where young African entrepreneurs are putting in their 10,000 hours coaxing ones and zeros into applications and platforms to rival MPESA and Ushahidi - in scale, global reach and profitability.

Keep in mind, that all of this development is happening on the backdrop of insufficient access to energy, sporadic political instability, the effects of climate change, and limited infrastructure. Let's not forget the ever widening gap between stalwart, clueless, post-colonial leadership and an informed young population growing up in a connected world. These are but a few of the daily realities of living in Africa. They are also the very reasons Africa is engineering its own solutions. The digital landscape offers Africans the ability to overcome even those harshest of conditions. Ushahidi was born out of Kenya's post-election violence. Mobile banking is a success in Africa partly because it serves a need not filled by traditional, flat-footed banking mechanisms. A myriad of innovations in the health, education, transparency and citizen media sectors are being innovated right on the mobile platform.

If I were to leave you with a bit of advice, I would say, keep a very close eye on Africa's young population, that 450 million number growing up with a mobile phone in their back pocket. Better yet, you better start calling them and finding out what the hottest innovation is for your investment dollar. Even better still, get down here as fast as you can and double down on a few innovators. I've got a few in my address book.

What would be your guess if I told you that there is such a place in the world synonymous with world-class innovation? What if I told that if you wanted to make a name for yourself as an innovator over the next five years, this is place to be? If I said it is a wide-open marketplace standing a billion customers strong with a cumulative GDP growth projected at 7 per cent by 2011, what say you? What if I screamed it is a youthful pool of talent, half a billion under the age of 15? What if I told you it has the highest potential for ICT sector growth than anywhere else in the world? What would be your first thought?

The arrival of mobile phones, copious amounts of broadband, centres of innovation and technology excellence, strategic investments by multinational tech giants and the perfect demographic soup are providing an excellent opportunity for Africa's outliers to shine.

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TMS Ruge (Teddy) is the cofounder of Project Diaspora - an organization with a mission to motivate, engage, and mobilize the African Diaspora to take an active role in Africa's economic, social, and cultural revitalization by leveraging their $40-billion in annual remittances, collective intelligence, and global connections. A mobile innovation enthusiast, Teddy also frequently blogs about the African ICT sectors and its effects on development. He writes extensively regarding the emerging push to connect Africa to broadband internet on the Project Diaspora blog and has been invited to speak on the subject at such notable conferences as South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW), Africa Gathering, Ars Electronica Festival, and Mobile Web East Africa. In his previous life, Teddy broke and currently holds Uganda's national record in the decathlon and pole vault and, formerly, the high jump. He was also a one-time Ugandan Olympic hopeful in the decathlon. He grew up in Uganda, Kenya and Dallas, TX.

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