Africa is on the verge of a great revolution.
Not political or social, but there is little doubt that the repercussions from what is changing will shake the foundations of the very continent.
Welcome to the rise of Silicon Savannah
The nickname of ‘Silicon’ originally referred to the region’s large number of silicon chip innovators and manufacturers, but is now generally used as a reference for the American high-technology sector.
Today, the term refers to the heart of innovation on the West coast of America.
Thousands of high technology companies are found and head quartered in Silicon Valley. Many of those are part of the Fortune 1000:
- Adobe Systems
- Apple Inc
It is a hotbed of innovation.
Want Google Glass? It was developed in Silicon Valley. The latest iPhone? Silicon Valley. The unlikely hit app YO? You got it; it came from Silicon Valley.
So what does this have to with the Silicon Savannah?
Silicon Valley Losing its Lustre?
Before we go to Africa, let’s look at some of the hidden numbers that make up Silicon Valley.
- Between 1995 and 2005, more than a half of all Silicon Valley tech companies were founded by Immigrants. But in 2012, that had dropped by a sixth. According to the 2012 Open For Business study, immigrants are twice as likely to start a business as native born Americans – so why is that number declining in Silicon Valley instead of increasing?
- American Federal funding for advanced computer science and electrical engineering research has dropped sharply since the late 1990s
- Many advances in computing are starting to come from outside of the US. In 2007, only seven American firms ranked among the top 25 US patent recipients.
- China and India each now graduate more engineers and scientists per year than the US.
- The US share of patents issued has fallen below 50%
- Net Neutrality may be coming to an end in America. Which means that Start-Up companies may not be able to afford starting up. Investors will be less willing to fund a startup, since they don’t know how expensive it’s going to be to have to pay off the big broadband provider
The ongoing connectivity of the world has allowed for the greatest minds of the world to find outlets for their innovations in areas that are not Silicon Valley USA. This means it is no longer a must to immigrate to the USA or Canada if you want to see your innovation come to fruition, you can find outlets in other parts of the world such as Silicon Savannah. Incidentally this is all happening while the Net Neutrality debate continues to heat up. The end of net neutrality might make it cheaper for startups to launch from other countries where they don’t have to pay premiums for fast lane internet.
(We wrote an article on what Net Neutrality is earlier this year – you can read that article HERE)
With all of these new barriers cropping up, it should come as no Surprise that Silicon Valley may be starting to stagnate.
From a Valley to a Savannah?
Seven of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies are now located in Africa.
- Ethopia which is growing ten times faster than the U.K.
- Mozambique which has achieved an average of 7.2% growth during the last decade
- Ghana which is rivalling China in growth speed
The importance of Africa cannot be overstated. Now, although Silicon Savannah refers specifically to Konza, located in Kenya, it can be broadened to refer to Africa as a whole.
Africa is a continent without the most reliable of Internet. So how are they able to maintain this rapid economic growth? Of course there are the natural resources to consider, but the main technological draw is their emphasis on mobile technology.
The continent has some 650 million mobile phone users — more than the United States or Europe — who account for a direct economic impact of $32 billion.
This focus on mobile isn’t just changing Africa, it’s changing the world.
What also sets African innovation apart is a core understanding that technology must work for residents in both bustling modern cities, such as Cairo or Cape Town, and the rural areas that are still home to half the world’s population.
Techies hunched over laptops in small offices across Africa want to create their own versions of California’s Silicon Valley and some are beginning to attract investors prepared to take a risk in the hope of high returns.
Technological Innovations from Silicon Savannah
In Ghana, for example, a mobile app by social enterprise m-Pedigree verifies whether medicines are genuine.
Fake medicine is a scourge in Africa and people often have no way of telling whether they are buying the real thing or not.
Known as the BRCK, the router will cost just under $200 and charge off car batteries, solar panels or main electricity.
Its battery can run for at least eight hours, essential in a region with frequent power outages.
Internet usage is still patchy with only about one in five Africans having access to it, as many are restricted by lack of electricity, broadband or devices.
When things turned ugly after Kenya’s 2007 elections, an unlikely group of heroes — young African coders — developed a platform that used cellphones and the Internet to track the violence. Ushahidi, as it was called, would go on to transform not only government accountability in Nairobi but, more broadly, digital mapping around the world
Ushahidi has been used to find survivors of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, to track the impact of the BP oil spill, and for outlets like The Huffington Post and Al Jazeera to gather news otherwise unreported.
iCow is an SMS (text message) and voice-based mobile phone application for small-scale dairy farmers in Kenya.
The continued challenges of connecting a continent as big as Africa continue to be a driving force in technological innovation.
Of course, once BRCK becomes widely accessable and used, that might change. For now, however, Internet access can be spotty at best.
Another problem? The ideas may come from Africa, but the actual product is for the most part being developed in America. That rule also applies to BRCK.
“Can we truly add that silicon name into Silicon Savannah. We don’t have hi-tech manufacturing here yet. But we are starting to,” said Juliana Rotich, one of the creators of BRCK.
It isn’t just Africans who are interested in the rise of the Silicon Savannah. Outside companies are looking to invest huge amounts of money to help make the Savannah a hotbed of innovation.
Savannah Fund has made its first move into South Africa, buying into two Cape Town-based start-ups.
The fund, which already has investments in East Africa and West Africa, has invested in e-commerce site BabyGroup, an online shop and information service for new parents, and Wyzetalk, a social business platform developer.
Businesses investing in Kenya’s multi-billion dollar technology city are being promised tax exemption for up to ten years in a bid to attract more investors.
This is according to proposals outlined in the ‘Konza Technopolis Development Authority Bill 2014’, which recommends that all businesses operating within the $10 billion Silicon Savannah project be exempt from paying 30% income tax and 16% value added tax (VAT) for the first ten years.
The next time you come across a really cool technological innovation, take a second to find out where it came from it might be just another Silicon Valley product, or it might have come from across the world in Silicon Savannah.