We need to understand in Africa that the revolution will not be televised. This might sound like a cliché, but this is not a Gil Scott-Heron lyric, and the reality is much more ominous, as the revolution will most certainly be live. In fact, it is happening “koro-koro”, before our “very” eyes.
View from Potsdam Boat Ride
The technology-enabled revolution that is sweeping through Africa, will be much more dislocating and/or devastating (depending on your estimation) in its scale and scope, and ultimately, its direct impact and indirect effect. The starter pistol has since been fired, although it was distorted by a silencer – the muffling effect of the “up-an-dan” tempo of life in Africa. But you can feel it beginning to play out, and those in the know are positioning. It will make the current mobile-driven one pale in comparison to the combined effects of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Internet of Things, driven as these are by the offshored capture of our Data.
I capitalize the “D” in Data to underscore its importance, relevance, and impact. Any organization or venture that does not realize this centrality is already dying or dead; they just might not know it yet. In the face of this revolution, it is important to sound a clarion call to existing, emerging, and prospective entrepreneurial talent, for-profit or otherwise. And for a short time at least, the challenge-borne opportunities for us to establish long-lasting ventures in our local “Hobbesian” environments, provide an impetus for us to act now – especially within innovative niches, or forever hold our peace. The scale and scope at which Data is being accumulated in this new age, can never be matched by hitherto tedious analog methods.
Case in point: In the final analysis, the Internet (which is simply the most exponential Data accretion tool in the history of mankind) is essentially a value-addition to the real platform driving the Data revolution, the hum AND drum of energy access. There are energy rich nations and energy poor nations; and it is quite clear that the former (Data colonialists) will always outwit and surpass the latter (Data colonies), unless we start to act now, and at the minimum, force a negotiated settlement. But before we start to negotiate, and to ensure a modicum of success; in this coming confrontation, what is our BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement)? It is clear that broad and active skin-in the-game iterations that fail fast, learn, and adjust, must override whatever limitations exist, to playing our offensive game and bulking up on our D (Data).
I am currently attending an Affordable Energy for Humanity (AE4H) innovation lab in Potsdam, Germany (https://ae4h.org/innovation_lab); and this has already reframed my thinking. My essential summation in assessing its energy access theme (and the underlying implementation considerations and sustainability dynamics), is that the infrastructure needed to power Africa’s reemergence on the global stage on an equal footing, must embrace the notion of a multifarious stakeholder (role) and value (exchange) network, in cross-subsidizing the various products, services, channels, and platforms needed to deliver it. For many African startups, understanding the nexus between the need for rapidly and sustainably deploying available, affordable, and accessible technology-enabled products and services (amidst our inglorious dearth of enabling infrastructure) AND the coming Data revolution, needs to be much more un-nuanced and evident.
Indeed, Victor Asemota, in his recent seminal article (https://medium.com/@asemota/the-age-of-zero-excuses-13fd66265134) has outlined the onus that we now bear and the parameters that characterize it. Drawing on his premise, I seek to highlight the fact that this onus applies not just to software or Internet-enabling of ventures (that are relatively easier to ideate, develop, and test in our neck of the woods, “based on logistics”), but also to the dearth of physical (and other adjacent) infrastructure that we must overcome in doing so.
To put it simply, a critical impediment to a steady flow of Data (especially from Bottom of Pyramid users) is the continued absence of sustainable and scalable solutions to the pervasive energy access riddle. There is a symbiosis between energy access and Data; after all, in our mobile-first environment, what is the opportunity cost of smartphone usage, when the user cannot afford to charge or utilize it reliably because of its associated operational costs? Or when the service or product of a provider is frequently inaccessible due to poor quality or service levels? How much value is erased due to network congestion, errors, failures, or outright collapses? And this should be recognized as a core consideration driving, shaping, and oftentimes limiting the user behavior (and engagement), necessary to unlock burgeoning stockpiles of insightful Data.
As we stand on the cusp of another scramble for Africa, albeit a technology-empowered neo-colonization as it were, it is the limitation of this delivery infrastructure (and the Data accretion platforms that it enables) that must be incorporated as a strategic imperative (ab initio) into disruptive business plans and models. This incorporation is needed, both to securitize and cross-subsidize the value creation and exchange network that we need to embrace in successfully planning our negotiated stalemate.
In other words, we must accurately delineate the relevant (direct and indirect) stakeholders, within corresponding value networks (frames of reference), in order to make the appropriate exchanges, needed to deliver (and sustain) our solutions in the market, in time. And a critical piece of this revolves around (not too obvious) direct and ancillary soft and hard (read smart) infrastructure. For instance, and paraphrasing our forebears, since it is quite clear that the Telcos are carrying an elephant on their heads, we cannot expect them to search for ants with their feet. Innovation must come from outside the current “stakeholder” matrix, and therein lies our opportunity for disruption.
In this sense, and borrowing from my last article about the volume, velocity, and value of innovation unlocked by the winning trifecta of open source software, commoditized (embedded) computing hardware, and declining renewable energy sources, we must create new platforms that can help us resist the ensuing onslaught. We have to deliver value that brings as many of our users and customers into our niches, as quickly as possible, before the revolution matures fully. For if we succeed in this digital liberation of our 1 billion+ market, then when “the come comes to become”, we stand the chance of meeting the titans on a surer footing than Ojadili did with the 10-headed spirit. This is especially so because of the implications of an expansion of the current Data-driven colonization of Africa, relentlessly being pursued and sustained by the technology titans and Internet behemoths of the emerging new age.
For our purposes, the incorporation of data strategies (and the value that it unlocks or could potentially unlock) straddle 3 major areas:
- Data for business process and decision-making optimization (increases productivity and operational efficiency)
- Data for product/service enhancement or creation (increases satisfaction, retention, and lifetime value)
- Data for sale or resale to new markets or customers (analytics to Third Parties like advertisers, consultants, etc.)
Thus, this holy grail of the Data trinity must necessarily inform our assessments of the value (and its exchange) in our identified niches, as we plan and develop our ventures. This is because at a minimum, they provide novel ways and means of delivering underlying soft and hard infrastructure, as well as enhancing the myriad products and services our local environment demand.
As an aside, the Internet revolution that tore through the world, starting with the dotcom boom in the 90s, was premised (in part) on an age-old business model that incorporated the aggregation, mining, and analysis of Data, still exploding to the monetized tune of the collective value of Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. Before this, newspapers, radio, and TV, were all premised on the same multi-sided platform model. The fact that ex-titans like Yahoo have disappeared is simply a function of a first-mover failing to recognize the shifting sands of technology times; and a cautionary tale for own entrepreneurs.
In Africa, and even with the cost reduction of technology building blocks as I mentioned, the reality is that limited per capita purchasing power and other mass market scaling distortions, stifle the delivery of most products and services to the Bottom of Pyramid (BOP) users – whose mindshare the ensuing onslaught is targeting. Even with the various adaptations and innovations around access, coverage, and service for Internet-powered offerings, there is still a significant portion of eyeballs, and thus mindshare, that goes under and unserved in Africa today. The ultimate responsibility for winning and keeping the Data-lode that these multitudes represent, is the task that we must set for ourselves.
Ultimately, the barely-scratched surface of Africa’s true purchasing power and thus value, is locked in an unrealized potential of prosumers, whose direct and indirect activity in the digital niches and domains that we stake out, can spawn the dawn of a reframed new age in our image and likeness. We can meet the Data-driven revolution head-to-head, and in the negotiated stalemate of an equitable value exchange. Should we fail, the mirror on the wall’s idea of the fairest of them all, will ride in – conquistador-style; and we all know how that story played out.
So, yes; the revolution will not be televised. For it will be live-streamed (we hope) from the hundreds of millions of pixel-limited mini-screens that we can enable to click their way, out of the doldrums of incapacity and under-service, to our Data Eldorado. But then again, maybe I am wrong. Maybe my vision has ossified. Nevertheless, do we want to wager the odds? What if – in all my deluded approximations – what if I am right?
Co-Founder/Lead Evangelist – HITCH (by Flexfinity)