At this year’s London Business School Equall Conference, organised by the Women in Business Club, Sandy Khan, Founder of IN-CO, sat down with five African female leaders who are at the cusp of the technology revolution sweeping through the continent.
The panel featured Dorothy Ooko – Head of Communications Public Affairs at Google Africa, Omobola Johnson – Senior Partner at TLcom Capital, Uche Ofodile – CEO MTN Benin and Mimi Omokri – Head of Business Development at Uber, Sub-Saharan Africa.
In a year where homegrown African tech companies have attracted the interest and capital of Western Investors, the Today’s Africa: What the Tech panel provided useful insight into the factors fanning tech growth on the continent. Barely a few days after the conference, Flutterwave, a Nigerian payments company, raised $170 million in its series C round, pushing its valuation to over $1 billion. This valuation follows the 2020 acquisiton of Paystack, another African payments Company by Stripe for $200 million. The panellists through their unique positions in the African division of global tech companies or African venture capitalist (VC) firms broke down the challenges and opportunities fuelling the tech boom. They shared examples of the impact of their work on the African consumer and provided glimpses into the future of tech on the continent. The conversation was a deep dive into a market often overlooked in the global discussion on tech.
Access, connectivity, and digital inclusivity
A recurring theme in the discussion was the importance of widening access to technology, increasing connectivity and digital inclusivity. Dorothy Ooko explained that there are 4 billion digitally unconnected people in the world and 20% of these individuals resided in Africa. To connect the staggering 400 million Africans currently lacking internet access, Google is working to reduce the access barriers through innovative projects like Taara and Lipa Mdogo Mdogo. Taara aims to overcome the high cost associated with laying underground cables by providing high-speed internet through light beams produced by Taara terminals located on high rise structures in densely located communities. Lipa Mdogo Mdogo a partnership with Safaricom provides device financing to Kenyans lacking capital and access to finance, allowing them to pay for a smartphone over several months. The infrastructure challenges and access barriers are producing innovative solutions, but also increasing the productivity of traders, students and businesses.
The panellists reminded the audience that to succeed in the African tech space, industry participators must be mindful that Africa is not a country, but a continent made up of 54 countries with huge diversity in landscape, culture, language, and regulatory environment. Mimi Omokri highlighted the diverse products Uber provides in the seven African countries it currently operates in. In Lagos, where traffic jams locally called ‘Go Slows’ are legendary, the company leverages Lagos’ vast waterways to provide Uber boat services, whilst in Kenya it provides tuk-tuk, a three-wheel vehicle, service to Kenyans and in Egypt, Uber has launched a mass transit service. Uche Ofodile echoed the need for localised solutions, explaining that access and digitisation “can mean something different in each country.”
Uche Ofodile called for “partnership, partnership, partnership” for unlocking growth, citing MTN – Africa’s biggest telecom’s partnership with banks and merchants to provide fintech products for customers. She suggested that partnership between companies in different sectors and lifecycle phases can help to drive innovation and digitisation further than the current industry trajectory.
The rise of data
When discussing the future growth area in African tech, Omobola Johnson explained how vital data analytics will be for delivering more value adding products for African consumers. She highlighted the 400 million mobile phones on the African continent and the large volume of information they generate but the very little data processing that currently occurs. Thorough processing of African consumer data will yield ample economic rewards for business and parties with access to the data. To mitigate any potential fallout that arises from the growth of data mining and processing in Africa, Omobola Johnson called for increased investment in cybersecurity.
Flattening the gender curve
Omobola Johnson uses her position as partner in Africa’s largest tech-focused VC fund to champion female founders and promoting female representation in the senior-management of her firm’s portfolio companies. Omobola cites Pula co-founder, Rose Goslinga as an example of supporting talented female founders. Omobola went further by encouraging women to re-skill and up-skill to take advantage of the emerging sectors in tech. Dorothy Ooko challenged women “to become aware of the power of their voice…to become comfortable with their voice and to use their voice”.
The way forward
In a continent often awash with negative stories, tech offers a hope for Africa and the African youth. With little government intervention, entrepreneurial and technological savvy Africans are leveraging technology to solve some of the continent’s pressing challenges. Growth attracts new entrants, as demonstrated by the companies represented on the panel, but growth must birth caution, and as Uche Ofodile suggested, ethical consideration of the products and services being offered. In an industry where regulation often lags innovation, and on a continent where regulatory enforcement is weak, the public and relevant institutions must hold tech companies to account, ensuring that they contribute their fair share of taxes and that digital sovereignty laws are developed, to ensure Africans retain profits attached to the mining of their data.
The EQUALL conference is the flagship event of the LBS Women in Business Club. EQUALL seeks to promote and support gender equality in the workplace. The conference is the leading forum in Europe for next generation leaders, connecting business students, professionals, and academics through keynote speeches, discussions, and workshops.
Kemi Badru is Co-President of the Infrastructure & Construction Club and Co-President (Finance) of the Private Equity & Venture Capital Club at London Business School. Kemi is an intern for the Wheeler Institute, contributing to the creation of content that amplifies the role of business in improving lives.