There's an old Chinese folktale about the starving inhabitants of a village and a noble hunter who confronts the challenge of feeding them. For weeks, he forages the countryside, until one day he's miraculously granted the power of being able to communicate with animals. The hunter uses this gift to refine his craft and, in time, his people are saved from famine. He becomes known throughout the lands as a savior - a man on Earth doing God's work.
In the modern world, the great Hai Li Bu would be viewed as an innovator. A maverick who uses his genius to solve a problem of the times. There's a sense, perhaps most prevalent in the West, that individuals of such ilk help to ensure that society's needs are always met. It borrows slightly from cornucopian ideology: the belief that all complications can and will be resolved through human ingenuity.
There's truth in that. After all, we're still here. But as I bear in mind the stark differences between life in first and third world countries, I do wonder: are we truly leveraging innovation in the places that it's needed most?
A conversation with my oldest brother during a recent trip to Zimbabwe caused me to think about this question in great depth. As we discussed our thoughts on the implementation and adoption of technology in the region, he made an obvious yet meaningful observation. The majority of people in the country of our birth face an entirely different universe of problems to what he and I encounter in the United States. Most of these relate to a lack of access to fundamental resources and services. As I voice my frustrations about the speed of the WiFi connection in my living room, a 19 year-old girl in my mother's hometown struggles to find a way to get to the nearest clinic for her HIV/AIDS treatment. And even if she does manage to make it there, there's no certainty that medication will be available. The question that then arises is, where do we begin if we're to intervene? A pragmatic solution considers all relevant factors. It surely wouldn't be as simple as sending pharmaceuticals to an organization on ground such as Compre Health, while in tandem expanding Uber's market coverage. At the most basic level, any plan would have to account for an inadequate health system and rudimentary technological infrastructure. Africa's challenges, you see, are complex. For solutions to yield any sort of tangible impact, they must be deeply tailored to the needs of the continent.
They say in technology that great products happen when people build for themselves. The logic in this is that when key decision makers have their own skin in the game, they're more likely to make the right choices. Why? Because they understand and they care. Africa is full of intelligent, driven young people, yet few end up pursuing careers in STEM. Partly to blame is the high rate of youth unemployment throughout the continent. In addition, there's long been a shortage of educational and training programs that provide people with the necessary skills required to work in these industries. It's a sad state, given our potential; but better days draw nigh. Greater emphasis, from both local and foreign stakeholders, is being placed on improving the talent pipeline in the region by nurturing untapped potential. One New York-based called company Andela, as an example, currently recruits individuals in Nigeria and Kenya to train as software engineers over the course of a few months. The African Leadership Academy in South Africa and Muzinda Hub in Zimbabwe also run similar programs. The reality is, though, until there's a critical mass of African technologists working to solve problems that they've known and felt, the current state of being will remain relatively stagnant.
Money moves the world, and the naked truth is that there's historically been an absence of it in the African business ecosystem. The venture capital model that's employed in more economically developed countries hasn't quite reached maturity in fragile states. As I see it, there are two primary reasons for this: 1) Western investor's unfamiliarity with the markets, thereby creating a high-level of uncertainty; and 2) a low-frequency of liquidity events. A lack of capital creates a barrier in commerce, not necessarily to entry but certainly, to scalability. Without cash -- paper -- companies simply can't move beyond a certain point. They're limited in what they can build, who they can hire and where they can reach. Of late, the gathering momentum of startups in the sub-Saharan region hasn't gone unnoticed. Early-stage funds such as EchoVC and the Savannah Fund have recently established a physical presence on the continent while making best use of close ties to Silicon Valley. If they, as first-movers, can demonstrate success then others may quickly follow. For now, while young African technology companies figure out how to prove themselves viable, it's likely that industry growth will be slow and steady.
And so the question I ask, you see, is one of great substance. The challenge, then, is of even greater magnitude. Our continent -- as beautiful as it may be -- suffers from deep, systemic issues. That we face an uphill battle in leveraging innovation to create meaningful value for our people is plain and clear to see. Yet still, the optimist in me feels progress is there and that it's merely a matter of time. A matter of time until, at long last, she emerges. Our innovator, our maverick, our genius -- Africa's savior.
Takakumirirai (we're waiting for you).