Graphic: DOROTHY KGOSI
Graphic: DOROTHY KGOSI

Ever since my first week promoting UK trade and investment in Africa more than three years ago, I’ve seen and heard repeatedly how innovation and technology can transform the way we do business, as well as fundamentally improve lives.

The UK has long been at the forefront of technology and innovation. Our strength is built on the UK’s excellence in research & development and creative thinking, alongside an inherently collaborative approach and strong international connections.

But what often surprises those who are less familiar with Africa is the range and sophistication of innovation taking place across the continent. Africa’s entrepreneurs and innovators are at the apex of a technological revolution that is transforming the continent.

Africa’s citizens are finding solutions to tackle deep-rooted problems and generate social benefits and impact, as well as creating new technologies to fuel the above-global-average economic growth rates in an increasing number of African countries.

Investors are looking to Africa for innovation and tangible proof-of-concept examples of digital leapfrogging

This innovation creates the opportunity to enhance the African approach to technology and innovation through an injection of a global perspective. The UK is well placed to partner with African entrepreneurs because of its world-class position as a place from which to grow start-ups; to collaborate; and to mobilise investment, including through the City of London.

African start-up success story Pelebox offers a real example of how this mutual partnership can work in practice, to the benefit of all. Pelebox is a smart locker system for distributing prescriptions to patients with chronic conditions while easing the administrative burden on health-care staff. Pelebox gives patients access to their medicine within 36 seconds, compared with the average 3.5 hours it takes in other health-care facilities. The start-up recently won the Africa prize for engineering innovation from Britain’s Royal Academy of Engineering, which provided additional seed capital to scale the business.

Pelebox and many other examples like it demonstrate that innovators have the potential not just to transform the African continent but to bring about change globally. This matters for our societies and our economies today, and also for the future, as we face the effects that climate change, demographic shifts, urbanisation and the fourth industrial revolution will have on our planet and our livelihoods.  

Supporting innovation and technology requires governments to provide the enabling environment in which entrepreneurs can be inspired to create, grow, access credit and protect their intellectual property. It requires an encouraging community and vibrant ecosystem to connect innovators with mentors and investors. 

The UK’s interest in working with Africa’s entrepreneurs is not a recent phenomenon. We have been committed to supporting innovation and technology in Africa for many years. Anyone who has travelled to East Africa will be familiar with M-Pesa, Kenya’s phone-based money transfer app. Fewer people will know that this extraordinary driver of economic and social change started with seed capital from the UK’s department for international development.

The system was launched by Vodafone’s Safaricom mobile operator in 2007 as a simple method of texting small payments between users. Today there are 30-million users across 10 countries with a range of services on offer, including international transfers, loans and health provision. Thanks to an innovation partnership with the UK, M-Pesa is now an inspiration to the world.

Connectedness, whether local or global, drives innovation and extends the market reach of all players in an ecosystem. Since the success of well-established firms and start-ups in the knowledge-based economy is increasingly dependent on their ability to innovate, the importance of global networks to the performance of both the UK and Africa tech sectors cannot be overstated.

Africa’s growing network of tech hubs — more than 440 across an increasing number of countries, according to a recent Global System Mobile Association report — illustrates that the continent is fertile ground for encouraging, investing in and scaling up a technology-led entrepreneurship culture. This, coupled with the fact that by 2020 Sub-Saharan Africa will have more than half a billion unique mobile subscribers — twice the projected number in North America and not far from the total in Europe — makes the continent the fastest-growing area for mobile technology and establishes Africa as an emerging platform for social and commercial innovation.

The UK has a thriving tech community and is a global leader in tech investment. London is one of the world’s best global start-up ecosystems. United by our shared interests and inspired by our differences, the UK is partnering with tech entrepreneurs and start-ups across Africa, offering access to investment opportunities, partnerships and mentorship for African tech companies looking to grow and expand. This includes the hosting of the first “prosperity start-up games” in Cape Town, which is aimed at helping early-stage companies improve their investor readiness, pitch for investment, share knowledge and expertise, and enhance trade and investment between Africa and the UK.

It also includes support to leverage innovation from around the world to create “smart cities” on the continent, able to provide for the fast-growing number of urban citizens. One element of this activity has been to work with Cape Town to explore how big data can improve infrastructure maintenance and enhance resilience to climate shocks. In Nairobi, in July, UK experts in urban development, medtech and fintech will be looking to find local partners with whom to work to address the challenges presented by the changing world around us.

Investors are looking to Africa for innovation and tangible proof-of-concept examples of digital leapfrogging. Ambitious tech companies increasingly seek out smart capital and support from people who have experienced the challenges of accelerated growth and understand how to help a company develop from initial proof of concept to mass-market growth.

As the UK strives to achieve its ambition to be the largest Group of Seven investor in Africa in the coming years, our ability to connect the trillions of pounds that flow through the City of London to the millions of entrepreneurs and rapidly expanding businesses in Africa — fuelled by technology and innovation — will be key, not only to generate greater investment flows to Africa but also to provide the much-needed access to credit for African small businesses to expand and create the millions of jobs that Africa’s young adults require. Technological innovation will be the key theme for a UK-Africa investment summit to be hosted in London in January 2020. 

International investment acts as a catalyst for global connections, bringing together companies and investors from across the world. This stimulates worldwide network building, which in turn contributes to the emergence of ground-breaking global companies. This provides the ideal environment for the UK and Africa to strengthen its ties and relationship from a tech and innovation perspective. 

Never has there been a more opportune time in history for the African continent to have a more conducive environment for innovation and shift the balance towards technology-led purpose and prosperity.

The UK is a natural partner for Africa’s entrepreneurs as we look to change the world for the better — for businesses and individuals — through technology and innovation. There is enormous potential for our innovators to work together in pursuit of similar goals, based on inclusivity, sustainable economic development, prosperity and empowerment.

• Wade-Smith is trade commissioner for Africa in the UK department for international trade.