Private Sector and Technology: The Key Drivers for Sustainable Africa’s Development

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Against the background of beautiful videos from around the African continent, Quantum Global held their third symposium.  The symposia reflect Quantum Global’s ambitious work throughout Africa and seek to place the company at the head of Africa’s development narrative. 

The symposium focussed on whether Think Tanks, university graduates or technology and innovation was the key for unlocking the potential of Africa. Jean-Claude Bastos De Morais, CEO of Quantum Global and the man behind the symposia, opened the event by explaining that “Africa is in a challenging phase, with most countries dependent on natural resources and prices of resources have gone down drastically.” He explained the common problem across the people is a population made up of over 50% 19 years or under. “This demographic is the future of the continent, but also people that want to work. We need to find work for 370 million people!” He went on to explain the symposium is important because it gives a chance for people to understand the issues from an African perspective.

The guest of honour, Dr. Nkosana Moyo, founder of Mandela Institute for Development Studies (MINDS) and former COO at the African Development Bank first attempted to define ‘enablers’, the key word of the symposium. “I understand it to be the key drivers for sustainable development. Our continent is at such a low base that a lot of things are important to do. But determining the key elements becomes challenging.” Having worked extensively in both the private and the private sectors, Mr Moyo believes that governance and leadership is actually the key issue hindering Africa’s potential. “Give me a magic wand and I would change all the politicians; they are the shaky foundations that will bring the changes down”, he told the audience, after first checking whether any politicians had attended. “The problem is, bad governance creates opportunities for making a lot of money. If it was not possible to make a lot of money then politicians would take a step back and think ‘ we have to change something’” added Dr. Moyo. Understanding that swapping out all politicians is only a fantasy; he acknowledged that it is the private sector, and more specifically technology, that can push Africa forward. 

Joining Dr. Moyo on the stage were Temitope Ola and Dr. Patrick Jermann, from Centre for Digital Education and MOOCS for Africa, Demmy Adesina, CEO of Rensource Distributed Energy Ltd, Nichole Yembra, Head of Risk management and Investments at Venture Garden Group, and moderator Rolake Akinkugbe, VP and head Energy and Natural Resources of FBN Asset and capital management. 

After introducing the panel, Akinkugbe invited the audience to vote on which were the most important enablers for Africa, Think Tanks, Education, or Technology and startups. 

The results of the poll were:

1 – Universities - 26%

2 - Think tanks - 3%

3 - Technology and start-ups - 54%

4 - Or none of the above - 17%

 

After the vote the panelists were invited to make their initial comments. Whilst all agreed that there was a role for all of the above enablers, they raised other issues that inhibit sustainable development. Nichole Yembra, who’s firm offers investment for small to medium sized start ups in Nigeria, talked of the lack of reliability of clients. “Getting paid is hard and in the public sector it is even harder”, she explained, “It is hard to go to government, when they also don’t pay.” Her firm mitigate against such possibilities, finding “creative” solutions.  Demmy Adesina suggested keeping away from government-controlled sectors altogether, although he also believes that Governments are improving and becoming more open to public private partnerships. “Governments have had to partner with the private sector, and investors are more in the driving seat at the moment, because of the current climate”.

Patrick Jermann and Temitope Ola explained that access to the internet is hindering their efforts to expand the education possibilities for Africans. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) offer affordable or free courses that can be accessed by anyone. With universities like Stanford and EPFL offering MOOCS, students in Africa can now supplement their learning and develop broader skills. “One of the big problems is people have studied in one discipline but they are missing a mix to be able to solve real problems. One of the first examples we will try out is to upscale people from a social science degree with IT skills”, explained Mr Jermann. Mr Ola also explained that “Affordability is a big issue in Africa, with the price of a data plan it can take $100 to stream a two hour video”. “Solutions need to come from the bottom up, using smart tech”, he suggested, and with Africa’s ability to leapfrog technologies, the smart tech options may revolutionise the education sector.  

MOOCS for Africa is looking at ways of integrating the MOOCS technology and using it in the everyday situation. From increasing the amount of nurses training positions, to supplementing the training of technicians on the factory floor, they believe that online learning is the future of all sectors of African education. “One of our examples is that Nichole Yembra’s firm VGG has partnered with is Edutech”, explained Mr Ola. Yembra continued, “We work with a company to produce tablets containing an entire semester of educational data. We did a nursing project in Nigeria. On site, they could only have 70 nursing students, but using our program they ended up having 570.” Using this system not only massively increased the amount of potential students that could take the course, but also taking the learning system completely offline meant they dealt with the data cost and bandwidth issues. 

In another vote, 54% of the audience believed that Think Tanks are no longer relevant. Dr. Moyo, the founder of prominent Think Tank MINDS, explained that in his opinion Think Tanks have varied usefulness. He suggested that Think Tanks that are aligned to governments make the most impact, but only produce data that those funding them want to hear. Conversely, independent Think Tanks release objective well-researched information, but without the impact of the government funded set ups. Moyo believes that these independent Think Tanks need to realise that their audience is civil society and not government and that they “need to use language that is accessible to the civil society.” He also expects that when information is in the hands of the many there will be greater “agitation”. 

Every panellist saw technology as part of the solution. After a question posed from the audience regarding the potential for technology to create an unemployment product, Mr Ola answered “People are scared about potential loss of jobs because we are at the beginning of a revolution. This digital revolution is creating more jobs in places like Africa because it only requires a brain. What Africa has most, is people.” Mrs Yembra added a reminder that “Africans are incredibly innovative, even creating apps in Africa that mirror American apps in under 24 hours.”

 

Photo: The panelists and moderator Rolake Akinkugbe extreme left