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Africa’s ICT Wave reaches San Francisco Bay

About three weeks ago, I sat in a conference hall in San Francisco and listened as President Paul Kagame of Rwanda addressed a group of African and US Government officials. Nothing particularly remarkable in that. Its part of the role of head of state, after all.

However, the location was more than symbolic. The event was at the Hilton, in the Financial District, in tech-rich northern California. And the audience was chock full of luminaries of the IT world, from Cisco, Oracle, Motorola, Microsoft and others. What is even more remarkable is that nearly everyone in the audience agreed.

They agreed on the power of IT to transform the continent, and on its ability to help countries “skip steps in development” by adding more dynamism to local business. Kagame himself referred cell phones as the “lifeline of microentrepreneurs”.

They agreed on the importance of increased investment in IT as a way of improving government. New technology, said Kagame, was no luxury, but a central focus of the country’s programs in delivering remote education, providing disease surveillance and avoiding drug shortages.

They agreed on the incredible demand for IT on the continent. An expert from Uganda’s Makerere University described how Uganda’s cell phone penetration had gone from 5,000 units 9 years ago to more than 2.6 million today. In fact, a cell provider that didn’t exist in Uganda a decade ago was the nation’s #1 taxpayer in 2006.

But unlike so many meetings, this private sector-government pow-wow went much further, and the implications are important for companies that want to do business on the continent and for Governments that wish to attract them.

  • In San Francisco we heard a lot about cell phones, but more than ever before about data. The future, said Greg Wyler the founder of Terracom is in data. From new undersea cable systems, to cell towers placed up where the mountain gorillas live, there were examples everywhere of how Africa is expanding data. Throw out half of what you think about the African market. Get ready for an avalanche of demand for data. (Oh, and Africans are doing a good bit of the build-out).

  • There was a wide acknowledgement that prices are coming down, and quickly. Handsets are being produced cheaply on the continent. Mobile data in Rwanda will soon be made available for the same price as in the US, with the ability to purchase service by the day, the week or even the month.

  • A number of speakers talked about how it may not be so bad after all for African nations to be new kids on the IT block. With fewer legacy systems in place, African IT managers aren’t as burdened by commitment to last year’s technologies. They can take advantage of the most advanced (and often cheapest) systems now available, and these systems can be set up in many cases very quickly.

  • Finally – and perhaps most importantly – everybody seemed to agree on the way forward. Nearly everyone in San Francisco, from ICT Ministers to the private sector to NGOs, stressed the need for African Governments to create a first-world regulatory environment, which creates the conditions to attract – and keep – investment. Government representatives spoke openly about their struggle to create the kinds of conditions to attract and keep investors, about the need to facilitate investment, provide strong IP protection, building linkages between Government, universities and the private sector. Private sector attendees reinforced how important is was to take customer service seriously, to put people on the ground, to treat Africa’s IT markets as the good long- (and short-) term bets that they have become.

In the end, as many at the conference noted, success will be no mystery. There’s no magic in setting up the infrastructure, there are plenty programs like the Nepad e-schools initiative that can help expand training. Both Government and the private sector know what they need to do. If even half of the promise of San Francisco becomes a reality, Africa’s IT future looks bright indeed. And the companies from Silicon Valley will be a part of it.

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