June 27th, 2011
12:00 PM ET

Africa: Frontier of innovation and growth

Editor’s Note: Eric Tyler is a Program Associate for the Global Assets Project at the New America Foundation. This post is part of the Global Innovation Showcase created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

By Eric Tyler – Special to CNN

Last April, M.I.T. held a business conference on campus titled “Africa 2.0: Achieving Growth Through Innovation.” In the keynote speech, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank, announced to a packed room, “Africa is now the new frontier.”

When it comes to the discussion of emerging markets, the conversation is normally dominated by talk of China, India and Brazil.  However, many African countries are demanding a place in the discussion, and the continent’s rapid growth and extreme market conditions may well be changing the traditional notions of what innovation is and where it can come from. 

The International Monetary Fund forecasts that in the next five years, Africa will have seven out of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world. In addition, consumer spending in Africa is growing two to three times faster than in developed countries.  In the next ten years, this consumer market is expected to grow to $1.4 trillion, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. This growth is giving rise to an exploding technology sector that seems to know no boundaries.

In the past five years, the information and communication technology sector in Sub-Saharan Africa experienced an annual compounded growth rate of 40%, the fastest globally. And in the last decade, telecommunication companies added over 300 million African cell phone subscribers, more than the entire population of the United States.

At last year’s diplomacy briefing series on Sub-Saharan Africa, Judith McHale, the State Department’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, described the pace of technology innovation in Africa:

“One of the interesting things about new technology is because so many countries in Africa have come late to the development, they’ve actually leap-frogged, and the applications that they’ve developed for mobile telephony, for one, are far more advanced than many of the things you’ll see in the [United States], which is why I always say we not only have to talk to people, but we have to listen. And we have to learn.”

Tech-inspired entrepreneurs and businesses are innovating to keep up with growing demands and needs of Africa’s increasingly tech-enabled markets.

Read: Dialing up development.

“Kenya’s advantage in the mobile payment space, South Africa’s social networks and web apps, Somalia’s mobile information system, and Ghana’s up-and-coming tech sector are all compelling stories on where innovation in both African business and African tech are taking us,” explained Erik Hersman, founder of iHub, a technology innovation center in Nairobi, Kenya

“If you come from a different continent, African innovation might not look like the innovation you are used to seeing but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

However, despite this enormous growth, many African countries are lacking investment and solid networks for its entrepreneurs to grow their ideas beyond micro-enterprises into larger, more stable businesses.

In attempt to capitalize on this knowledge of local market demands, efforts to harness and formalize African born ideas are currently underway. The World Bank's African Incubation Network has grown to more than forty “business incubators” across twenty African countries. And global technology companies like Google, Microsoft, Nokia and IBM, have also recently established incubation and innovation centers in hopes of launching the next big idea.

Read: America must embrace global innovation.

As African economies surge forward connecting even the margins of the continent to new technologies and business opportunities, stories of innovation and breakthrough will emerge from all levels of African markets. And these stories will not only challenge the traditional rules of innovation, but they should also make us rethink Africa’s development and its place in the discussion.

Post by:
Topics: Africa • Innovation

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. omundukhumundu

    But you all quote foreigners who have no knowledge of the continent and use Africa as a place to earn a living. They will also not appreciate any form of criticism. I don't think that the article really listens to Africans

    June 27, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Reply
    • James

      Omundu, Erik Hershman is Kenya native.

      Glad to hear increasing trends showing a bright future for Africa.

      February 23, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  2. Maduka

    omundukhumundu,

    I agree with you totally.

    The West is still important to the future of Africa, but the West is not so important that it can discuss the future of Africa without African input. You cannot discuss innovation in Africa without holding discussions with Africans. There is a whole industry centered around "Talking" in the West – Davos, TED, Intelligence Squared etc. Many of the "stars" of these gatherings are more interested in plugging sales of their latest books than actual improvements on the ground.

    While the West is still "talking", the Chinese are actually doing something concrete. In Nnewi, Nigeria there are several collaborations between Nigerian and Chinese companies in the automotive and petrochemical space. The Chinese and Singaporeans are heavily invested in free trade zones that could drive business.

    June 27, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Reply
    • african

      they are doing the talk!
      chinese and koreans are doing the job!!

      July 9, 2011 at 1:30 am | Reply
  3. chnnlyr

    Great post, let's build the networks!

    June 27, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    It explains why Obama sent his wife Michelle and his two sweet girls to Africa to charm the people there! He has seen the vast potential on this continent and his girls simply mesmerised the audiences.

    June 27, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  5. MKK

    Africa is indeed The New Frontier. Africa has lots of problem which foreigners cannot understand. One greatest issue is TRIBALISM. Second is corruption and third is poor are getting more poorer day by day and that is the greatest challenge. It llooks beautiful from outside but it is rotten inside.

    June 27, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Reply
  6. SarahPalin

    I got a phone call from Nigerians. They said my dead uncle left me a million dollars in his will. All I need to do is send them my back account number and they will wire me the money. Those Nigerians are so nice. When you elect me president, I will invite all those Nigerians to the white house.......oops I guess I can't because my rich republican friends don't like black people.

    June 27, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Reply
    • kola

      The constant asociation of Nigeria/Nigerians to scam is unfortunate. But, the truth is that there is a big myth about the ever present Nigeria scam, it is simply over-hyped. In any case, an honest person who has no dead rich uncle will not be taken in by such correspondence, the trap catches only gullible, selfish, geedy and stupid people who thinks Africans are there to be taken advantage of. In a perverted way, those boys are catching you at your own game. In any case, Nigerians dont give a hoot about a racist and ill informed 'Sarah Palin'

      September 11, 2011 at 12:14 am | Reply

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