I recently returned from beautiful Cape Town, South Africa and the World Economic Forum on Africa 2011. Last Friday, I had the honor of being on the panel, Technology Update: The Next Leap Forward. I had a really super cadre of co-panelists: Virender Aggarwal (President, Asia, Africa and Middle East, HCL Technologies), Ory Okolloh (Policy Manager, Africa, Google), David Risher (President, Worldreader.org), Bright Simons (President, MPedigree) and moderator Peter Wonacott, (Africa Bureau Chief, Wall Street Journal).
Common understandings emerged during the panel discussion: Mobile is the future (phones and tablets). Useful and usable content (local value, local languages, on mobile, for people with limited literacy, etc.) is holding back progress. The opportunity to create value and improve lives through technology is huge. My remarks leveraged our Mobile Entrepreneurship and Web for Agriculture initiatives as illustrations of how Web technologies can empower people and communities.
The WEF-Africa as a whole was very well organized (led by Web Foundation advisor, Katherine Tweedie) and, most importantly, attracted an incredible and broad collection of people from government (including many heads of state and ministers), industry (including CEOs), and civil society.
There was a feeling at the Forum that Africa had moved from a state of simply “hope” to action and tangible progress. Progress is on a country-by-country and topic-by-topic basis. Several African countries are among the world’s fastest growing economies. Tanzania is revising regulations and becoming more attractive for investment. Political changes, often Web-fueled, swept through Côte d’Ivoire; Tunisia and Egypt. Ghana has had successive, democratic elections with a peaceful turnover of power. Some countries are reducing corruption (the deputy prime minister of Ethiopia offered an honest goal of “minimal corruption”). There is a growing number of public-private partnerships and a growing volume of “impact investing”, most yielding positive results.
Of course, there are still many serious challenges in many countries and in many areas: disease, poverty, unemployment, less-than-optimal governance and education, conflict, etc. Half of Africa lives on less than $1.50 per day. The youth explosion (~60% of Africans are under the age of 21) creates both stress and opportunity.
I also participated on another panel at a separate event — the Summit on the Social Investment in Africa, organized by Africa Investor — which took place on the day before WEF-Africa I have already started productive follow-up conversations with a number of very interesting, new contacts from Cape Town. Thanks to all who made WEF-Africa a valuable event.