The East Africa Com conference took place in Nairobi, Kenya during the days 14 and 15 May 2019. The overarching theme of the conference was new technologies enabling the emerging digital world and digital transformation. The specific focus of the conference was also on how these developments will unfold in East Africa and the impact they are likely to have across economic, social and government environments in the region.
The eco-system was well-represented at the conference, with organisations from the ICT industry, financial institutions, parastatal utilities, government entities and academia inter alia. Theoretical discussions were supported by ample examples of current uses cases for new technologies in East Africa.
The topics at the conference dealt with a wide range of subjects, tackling issues such as:
- Quality broadband connectivity and “affordable” access to ensure maximum socio-economic inclusivity in Africa (this continues to be a pertinent topic despite years of private sector and government initiatives);
- Adoption and application of new technologies (such as Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning) in various vertical industries and government agencies to deliver new and improved services to customers;
- Democratisation of data to make it more readily available for analysis to solve socio-economic problems through development of correct policies, yet remaining mindful of the requirement for data anonymity;
- Digital transformation among organisations in East Africa to become more efficient and globally competitive, and positioning for the 4th Industrial Revolution;
- Mobile money and financial inclusion; and
- Growing women leaders in ICT and business in general.
On the last point, the East Africa Com conference has developed a partnership with ITC SheTrades, an initiative of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations. The SheTrades initiative aims to connect three million women to market by 2021, facilitating opportunities for women entrepreneurs, supported by a web and mobile digital platform. At the conference, the emphasis was placed on bringing women into the tech sector and using technology to enable women to participate in economic activities to a greater extent. This would unlock a lot of additional value and grow the global economy, especially in developing markets.
Connecting ICT stakeholders
The AHUB again proved to be a very useful medium of connecting local technology start-ups with investors, operators and large corporates to foment collaboration on new projects and (hopefully) mutually beneficial partnerships. The discussion panel on “Realising synergies between MNOs and African tech start-ups” illustrated initiatives already in place aimed at creating an environment conducive to start-up development and success, although still only 1 in 10 start-ups achieve some form of success (including survival beyond the short term). Revenue splits from commercial products (such as apps) continue to be skewed in favour of large mobile operators who claim they provider greater inputs into the partnership. This can stymie the growth of start-ups into sustainable companies.
Building a successful digital economy
To build a successful digital economy in East Africa a number of more basic building blocks still need to be put in place. For instance, liberalisation of immigration laws to attract foreign skills and direct investment, or creation of incentive schemes to experiment with new technologies through pilots (“sand boxes”) free from bureaucratic constraints. Availability of requisite spectrum for new access technologies (such as 5G) timeously is also critical.
Regulating new technology
One of the recurring discussion points at the conference revolved around regulating the new technologies and services in the digital world. One first needs to understand what it is that one tries to regulate, which is what the governments and regulatory authorities in many markets are currently trying to achieve. Unfortunately, the consensus was that we are likely to see more rather than less regulation, which is also bound to become more complex with increasing complexity of the digital environment around us. This is at a time when most stakeholders hope to see less, not more, regulation to allow for freer development of the digital future. It is critical for governments and regulatory authorities to embrace new technologies, rather than stifle them with over-regulation, lest we miss out on opportunities the new technologies offer.
4th Industrial Revolution
In a sense, Africa is already well suited to the 4th Industrial Revolution. Out of necessity, and limited formal jobs, the gig economy is alive and well. New technologies such as AI, ML and mixed reality innovation will drive these opportunities and create more formal job. An example is the recent launch of the Africa Development Centre by Microsoft in Nairobi, Kenya and Lago, Nigeria which will bring USD100 million of investment and 500 engineering jobs over the next five years. Africa can take advantage of its young population to drive this growth but it first needs to create capacity.