2 - 4 November 2020 | Hosted by the University of the Free State

Africa needs to speed up its innovation pace, says SPU's Dr Malvin Nkomo

While Africans learn how to drive manual cars, innovators in the technology and start-up haven, Silicon Valley, are inventing driverless cars.

Dr Malvin Nkomo

In a virtual presentation during Student Entrepreneurship Week (#SEW2020) last week, Dr Malvin Nkomo (left), Data Science Programme Coordinator at Sol Plaatje University, threw down the gauntlet to studentpreneurs.

"My challenge is this: instead of producing data for the big companies, start using their devices to innovate and power our next big thing, here on the African continent." The Kimberley-based academic used the analogy of cars to explain his premise, asking his audience to think about how they were required to renew their driver's licence every five years.

"While we are busy with licences and learning how to drive manual, not even automatic cars, the rest of the world is talking about autonomous cars that don't need to be driven at all. This shows the gap within which we are innovating." Dr Nkomo is familiar with methods of transportation: he is the founder of Hailer Technologies, a Pan African, on-demand, mobility service that is the African equivalent of Uber.

Speaking to the theme, African Entrepreneurship Through Technology he urged student entrepreneurs to think globally when coming up with ideas. Still using the car analogy, Dr Nkomo said that reckless driving and road accidents caused 1,5 million deaths a year. "Autonomous cars drastically reduce that; so let cars drive themselves. It's where the world is heading; Africa is not working towards these kinds of innovations, and we need to."

He said it was critical to innovate with the world in mind, not just for our region. "Two to three billion more people will have access to the internet by 2025, so understand the global reach you can actually achieve by taking your solution to the world."

Scalability was crucial to the success of any business, he said.

Using the example of the South African innovated communications App, Mixit, Dr Nkomo said: "Ten years ago, Mixit came onto the market. It should have been the biggest thing to happen the world over, but it shut down and WhatsApp became a global phenomenon. Why? Because its scaling and scoping was not futuristic."

(Look out for the University of the Western Cape presentation where Eldrid Jordaan, the co-founder of Mixit, is part of a panel discussion where he talks about what went wrong and why Mixit was forced to shut down.)

He urged students to factor scalability when innovating. As more and more people gain access to the internet it was crucial for studentpreneurs to find ways to deploy all services onto the platform. "You have access to more customers that you will never see in your life, but who will be raking in billions for you."

The academic innovator described how rankings of big business had changed in the last decade, from oil companies, banking and financial services being replaced by technology driven companies. "How can we reposition ourselves as Africans to build the next big thing? I believe Africa has the most productive population, but we're sitting with businesses that don't scale to the global reach needed."

Everything converges in Silicon Valley, the heart of all technological innovations that have shaped the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In 2018 Africa had a GDP of $2,2-trillion. California had a GDP of $2,8-trillion. Africa's population: 1,3 billion; California: 39 million. Dr Nkomo said technology was the difference: Africa's core business is mixed; California's is data driven tech.

"If you look at the Apps in your phone, they are built by companies with the highest market capitalisation in the world: FaceBook, Microsoft, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp, Google, Amazon. Those companies hit a market cap that is bigger than all of Africa combined. Here in Africa, we use our devices (many of us have two or three) to provide those big companies with data rather than using that data to innovate."

Using the example of the YouTube phenomenon, Baby Shark, that has had 5-billion views, Dr Nkomo said: "I recently came across a teenager who said he didn't play video games, he makes them. We need to start producing children in Africa who can start developing products."

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has seen the birth of technologies that help us to exist with items that never used to participate on the internet. Cyber physical items have come into existence through technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Quantum Computing, 3D Printing, Robotics and the Internet of Things.

"All of these things are spelling out a future that we need to understand, so we can realign ourselves to ensure we are not left behind." Dr Nkomo said students needed to remember that data simply provides information that has to be converted into insight and used to make data driven decisions.

Data driven platforms like Zoom and Teams had thrived during this pandemic. To illustrate the changing face of business, Dr Nkomo noted that the largest media company, Google, generates no content and the biggest retail store, Amazon, has no inventory of its own.

"In our rethinking of African technology we need to understand these trends so that when we are innovating, we need to innovate in line with where technology is heading to, as opposed to just innovating blindly," he said.

The Internet of Things

Dr Nkomo said: "I'm passionate about The Internet of Things; it is going to have far more impact than the internet." He said that where the internet connected only to computers and servers, it can now interact with objects (your smart watch, for example, can monitor your heart rate while you are running).

"Things are starting to inhabit the internet, and that is going to be far more exciting. Soon you won't even need your phone because your lenses, or glasses, will give you the ability to connect to the internet. Already you can talk into your watch, and use your iPhone Airpods - all of these things are connected to the internet."

Dr Nkomo urged students to look to The Internet of Things when innovating.

"The capabilities that we start opening up will speak to a future that is brighter and more efficient. That will help us understand that Africa can be a significant global player." By 2030 Africa will have the world's most productive workforce because it has a large youthful population. It was why companies like Google and Facebook are investing in Africa.

"This in not charity," Dr Nkomo stated. "You only invest when there are going to be returns and these companies have studied global economies and the population chain and are seeing that the next big thing to happen is going to happen in Africa." He added that Africans needed to stop merely consuming data but to start using it to innovate.

Technology has given birth to a host of new industries. Technology use will see South Africa double GDP by 2035, but 4,5 million jobs are at risk from automation.

In conclusion, Dr Nkomo said: "Who is going to survive? Data driven businesses driven by algorithms will survive. We built Hailer, a competitor to Uber. There is no reason why we should always rely on Silicon Valley for our products." Quoting Albert Einstein he wrapped up by saying: "We cannot solve the problems of the future with solutions of the past".

Charmain Naidoo is a freelance writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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