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What my decade at Google taught me about Africa’s tech future

Juliet Ehimuan
By Juliet Ehimuan

Regional Director for Google in West Africa

Posted on Monday, 24 May 2021 10:37

Nigerian teacher, Emmanuel Ntaji, speaks to his students during an e-learning class via Zoom at his home, during a lockdown in Lagos, Nigeria 23 April 2020. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

Tech companies that understand local requirements and adapt to accommodate the region’s unique structure are most likely to succeed, argues Juliet Ehimuan, Google's regional director for West Africa.

Looking back at the last 10 years at Google, I am struck by how much has changed, and not just in the last tumultuous year. I have been in tech for all of the 25+ years of my career journey, with the last decade at Google where I now serve as director for West Africa.

I have not only been a witness, but in many ways, also an active participant in many of the things that have transformed the continent from a tech perspective. Over the last decade, ‘Silicon Savannah’ has been more firmly established. All the tech giants – Google, Facebook, Netflix, Microsoft, and Apple – have all opened offices in Africa, and it comes as no surprise that many of these conglomerates have chosen Nigeria as their base – Africa’s most populous nation, with its thriving tech hubs and young, entrepreneurial population.

No technology company can ignore the growth market which Africa represents.

The World Bank estimates that by 2100, one in three people on the planet will be living in Africa. By 2030, the International Finance Corporation estimates that there will be 230 million jobs on the continent requiring some level of digital skills.

This is the equivalent of 650 million training opportunities. In Nigeria alone, the World Economic Forum expects between 35-45% of jobs to require some form of digital skills. The growth expected, of jobs that require digital skills, has primarily been driven by strong economic growth coupled with digitisation of the agriculture, manufacturing and service sectors.

One of the biggest challenges in Africa has been limited infrastructure. Historically, telecoms infrastructure was poor, but the continent was able to leapfrog the land infrastructure era to mobile telecoms. In just over two decades – from 1999 to 2020 – phone access in Nigeria grew from just 200,000 subscribers to 133 million, with 43 million of these added in just the last decade. Teledensity went from 63% to 107% in just the last decade.

This trend is replicated across the continent. Reports show nearly half a billion people now subscribe to mobile services in sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 272 million Africans now connected to the internet on their phones.

The ecosystem of Africa’s tech space

Thanks to this mobile connectivity, the continent has seen accelerated growth and adoption of tech-enabled mobile applications in areas such as fintech solutions, money transfers, e-commerce, agriculture, e-learning, social media, music, video and other online platform solutions. Africa now rivals any part of the world in terms of adoption, growth of enterprises, and innovations being created on mobile.

For the digital economy to thrive, certain things need to be in place: robust and reliable infrastructure, digital skills, local content, service providers and developers, and an enabling policy environment. Over the past decade, these challenges have been creatively addressed in Africa. Partnerships among private sector companies and public-private ones have been key in addressing the issues.

Companies operating in the tech space understand that it is crucial to invest in the ecosystem and that would pay off in the long run, because a rising tide lifts all boats. At Google, we have worked with partners to train developers, help boost access through the various initiatives, provide support to tech hubs and mentor start-ups.

Tech companies that understand local requirements and adapt to accommodate the region’s unique structure are most likely to succeed. This is why I am very proud to be part of Google’s Next Billion Users initiative, focused on building products and solutions tailored to the unique needs of Africa and other emerging markets.

For instance, building a dedicated travel route for motorcycles on Google Maps or empowering the next generation of African artists through emPawa Africa, an initiative undertaken in conjunction with YouTube. The key to success is information sharing and there is no merit or success in choosing to exclude strong local partners.

And unlike many other sectors, where Covid-19 has caused growth estimates to be revised down, tech is already seeing greater investor interest, including in Nigeria where the wider telecoms sector grew by 17.6% in the fourth quarter of 2020 alone.

Just a few weeks ago, a $170m investment was made in Lagos-based Flutterwave, a payment-processing start-up. At five-years, Flutterwave is already more valuable than all but a few of Nigeria’s biggest banks, cementing the country’s burgeoning fintech industry as a growth sector and highlighting the immense importance that the tech space will play in enabling growth and job creation in Africa.

As we look toward the next few years and prepare for life beyond Covid-19, it is crucial that digital solutions and inclusive training remain at the forefront of Africa’s economic development. Every challenge has presented us with an opportunity to grow, and it has been truly remarkable being able to help shape this sector’s trajectory across Africa, while empowering a future generation of technology entrepreneurs including female founders.

I am confident that the continent’s vibrant and dynamic tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs will play a significant role in shaping the future of technology innovation.

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