Here's How African Innovators are Leapfrogging the Rest of the World

Here’s How African Innovators are Leapfrogging the Rest of the World

With a vast and ever-expanding demographic, Africa is poised to harness its enormous technological potential. The continent, often dubbed the “demographic dividend,” is strategically positioned to capitalize on the opportunities presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, characterized by significant advances in big data and artificial intelligence. Imperial College London’s alumni, research initiatives, and expertise play a pivotal role in shaping this knowledge explosion.

Professor Maggie Dallman, Imperial’s Vice-President (International), notes that previous engagement with Africa primarily focused on addressing challenges specific to the continent. However, the current approach involves developing areas of expertise and fostering academic exchange. This means bringing brilliant minds to Imperial College and facilitating exchanges that send talented individuals to Africa, fostering a dynamic flow of knowledge and innovation.

Natalie Jabangwe, an Imperial alumna (MBA 2012) and CEO of EcoCash, Africa’s largest mobile-phone-based financial services company, emphasizes the transformative potential of Africa’s mobile phone penetration. “More Africans own a mobile phone than own a toothbrush,” says Jabangwe. “Necessity is the mother of invention, and in mobile financial services and technology, Africa is leapfrogging the rest of the world.”

EcoCash, established in 2011, rapidly gained traction by registering 31 percent of Zimbabwe’s adult population in its first 18 months of operation. It facilitated transactions equivalent to 22 percent of Zimbabwe’s GDP. Today, the company boasts eight million registered customers, serving 80 percent of the country’s adult population and contributing to over 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s GDP.

Jabangwe underscores that the growth of Africa’s economy is contingent upon small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) gaining access to credit. Africa hosts 60 percent of the world’s 200 billion SMEs, but 75 percent of African SMEs lack access to credit. In response, EcoCash and other mobile money service providers, such as Kenya’s M-Pesa, have introduced innovative solutions.

These companies employ alternative measures, like analyzing data on income, expenditure, mobile top-ups, communication patterns, and mobility frequency, to assess financial circumstances. This approach enables them to evaluate financial eligibility in the absence of traditional collateral.

South African Benji Meltzer (MSc Bioengineering 2014) believes that the tech talent in Africa is exceptionally strong. He acknowledges that despite challenging conditions, African populations are embracing technology, citing necessity as a driving force. Furthermore, the absence of viable alternative banking options in some regions has created opportunities for digital financial solutions.

Uzoma Dozie (MBA 1998), former CEO of Nigeria’s Diamond Bank, highlights that mobile banking solutions have been slow to take off in countries like the UK because they already have established banking options. However, in Nigeria, where 17 million SMEs remain unbanked, the financial sector had to adapt to the population’s needs. Diamond Bank collaborated with a mobile telecoms company, MTN, to offer current accounts through a simple text message. Over two years, the initiative successfully opened ten million bank accounts.

Moreover, the bank cooperated with Nigerian fintech companies to develop a banking app and dispatched agents to markets across the country. They facilitated the opening of bank accounts on smartphones, offering a transformative solution to individuals previously excluded from the formal banking system. This newfound financial control allowed people to save for their children’s education, invest in better living conditions, or expand their businesses.

These initiatives and innovative approaches by Imperial alumni and other stakeholders address pressing challenges across various sectors. For instance, Dr. Jalal-Eddeen Saleh (Medicine 2004), a National Professional Officer with the World Health Organization in Nigeria, acknowledges that health significantly influences household income, small business success, and overall productivity. Despite disease-related challenges, such as malaria, Africa is making progress in eradicating or controlling various diseases that have an impact on economic growth.

Benji Meltzer and his company Aerobotics are employing big data and machine learning to develop drone software that could enhance food security in agriculture, the continent’s largest industry, employing 53 percent of its population. Drones have the potential to survey extensive areas of land, allowing early identification of issues like pests and precise intervention strategies.

Connectivity is an essential element of Africa’s participation in the global economy, as highlighted by Jeff Molobela (Metallurgy and Materials Science 1982, MBA 1993), an expert in South African telecoms and infrastructure. Young people demand instant access to communication and information, and data connectivity is central to meeting these demands.

The ability to democratize knowledge through data and technology presents new opportunities, allowing people to access quality education and digital learning platforms at a fraction of the cost. Imperial College London, with its unique environment and emerging technology capabilities, plays a pivotal role in driving these transformations, inspiring innovation, determination, and partnerships to address the world’s most complex challenges.

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