Q&A: ‘More African-sourced funds are needed for African-based businesses’

Al Jazeera speaks to prominent tech executive Juliet Ehimuan on the growth and spread of emerging technologies across Africa.

Juliet Ehimuan, former head of Google West Africa
Juliet Ehimuan, former head of Google West Africa [Courtesy: Juliet Ehimuan via Instagram]

In the last decade, technology has been one of the fastest-growing sectors in Africa.

Key to that growth have been business leaders like Juliet Ehimuan, the immediate past head of Google’s operations in West Africa and a pioneer in a space still heavily dominated by male executives.

Ehimuan, who held that role for more than a decade, spoke to Al Jazeera on the evolution of the African tech landscape and the challenges to widespread digital literacy for common Africans in a contemporary age.

Al Jazeera: What are your observations on the evolution of the African tech landscape?

Juliet Ehimuan: The African tech ecosystem is vibrant and full of promise.

One of the most exciting developments is the significant increase in access to digital services and connectivity across the continent. Connectivity and access are part of the foundation required for Africa to participate fully in the future being built through existing and emerging technology, and their expansion has opened up new opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators.

The African tech ecosystem has evolved beyond traditional e-commerce where it started in the 2010s, to encompass various sectors such as fin-tech, edu-tech, health-tech and logistics.

The proliferation of tech hubs, incubators and accelerators has played a crucial role in nurturing startups and fostering a supportive ecosystem.

Witnessing the emergence of African tech unicorns has been incredibly inspiring. These success stories, such as Flutterwave, Interswitch, PayStack and Jumia, demonstrate that African startups can achieve significant scale and global impact, inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs.

We are seeing a generation hungry to create solutions to local and global challenges using technology. The fusion of technology with African creativity and culture presents immense opportunities for impact and disruption. It is an exciting time to be part of this sector.

Al Jazeera: From your perspective, what are the major advancements in infrastructure that have contributed to the growth of the tech ecosystem, and what challenges still need to be addressed?

Ehimuan: I believe three major drivers have revolutionised the landscape; deregulation of the telecommunications space, increased affordability of smartphones and data access and content broadening.

Until the late 1990s and early 2000s, telecommunications was the exclusive preserve of ineffective state-owned enterprises. By 1999, when the Nigerian telecommunications ecosystem was deregulated, there were just 200,000 landlines. Today, just about two decades later, there are over 80 million connected Nigerians.

That has been a game-changer for Africa. The World Bank reports that there are 650 million mobile users across Africa. With increasing coverage, even in remote areas, more people now have access to the internet, enabling them to connect, transact, and access information conveniently.

The availability of budget-friendly smartphones has democratised access to technology and data costs have also come down significantly, mostly due to competition. However, more work needs to be done to make data access even more affordable.

Also, e-commerce was the main play early on. We have seen more creative content online and now the internet is a primary source of revenue for many of the publishers, musicians, movie makers and skit makers across Africa. We have also seen the emergence of more companies across other sectors, including logistics and transportation.

While these key advancements have significantly contributed to Africa’s tech growth, challenges still persist, particularly in increasing the breadth and speed of access, improving the affordability of access, bridging the digital divide between rural and urban areas, assuring reliable power supply, increasing digital literacy and enhancing the access of women and girls to digital skills training.

Al Jazeera: The Nigerian tech ecosystem, in particular, has been gaining global recognition and attracting significant investments. Why is this so? 

Ehimuan: The entrepreneurial spirit and innovation mindset in Nigeria have fuelled the emergence of numerous successful startups across various sectors.

For example, Nigeria is home to over 100 food delivery and e-mobility startups and the sector saw a significant surge post-pandemic. The total value of orders was $540m in 2021 and reached an estimated $725m in 2022. This reflects clear demand and entrepreneurs in the market making moves to tap into that demand using new and existing technologies.

We’ve seen incredible e-commerce growth driven by the improved payment-processing landscape through unicorns like PayStack and Interswitch.

So, as Nigerian entrepreneurs continue leveraging emerging technologies to create impactful solutions to the challenges Nigerians face daily, we will see revolutionary, transformative impacts around us. With continued investment, mentorship and ecosystem support, Nigerian startups have the potential to become major players on the global tech stage.

Al Jazeera: There has been a surge in digital transformation, driven by technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning. How do you see these emerging technologies impacting Africa?

Ehimuan: These technologies are already being leveraged in agriculture to revolutionise farming practices. For example, Twiga Foods, a Kenyan startup, uses AI and machine learning algorithms to optimise the supply chain for fresh produce, reducing post-harvest losses and ensuring fair prices for farmers. In parts of Africa, ML is being used to automatically detect diseases in cassava farms. Furthermore, the potential of emerging technologies extends to the financial sector, transportation, energy, and education sectors.

Al Jazeera: Are there successful collaborations between tech companies, governments and other stakeholders that have had a positive impact on African tech?

Ehimuan: During my time at Google, we partnered with the Nigerian government to provide digital skills training to over 100,000 civil servants nationwide and then Lagos state government [separately], to six higher institutions in the state.

Similar collaborations exist with Meta, Microsoft, and other players across Africa. The African Development Bank (AfDB) has the Boost Africa initiative that promotes collaboration between tech hubs, investors and startups, providing mentorship, funding, and access to networks.

Al Jazeera: Financing and access to capital remain significant challenges for African startups. From your experience, what are some effective strategies to fix this?

Ehimuan: If we can address these issues, we can move from the four unicorns we currently have on the continent to 200 by 2030.

African startups have the same challenges startups everywhere have – not the least of which is cutting through the noise to gain the attention of potential investors. When we consider the fact that much of the investment in African startups is foreign, we must also consider the added challenge of the ease of doing business in Africa. These investors will not want to invest if the perceived risks of doing business in Africa are inordinately high.

I believe three things are needed. First, we must continue to drive for more de-risking of African economies. Governments across Africa should provide the right mix of incentives and investor-friendly policies.

Secondly, indigenisation and democratisation of investments must increase. More African-sourced funds are needed for African-based businesses. This effort must cut across private and public sectors. African governments and development finance institutions can establish dedicated initiatives that provide targeted support and funding for startups. These funds can be tailored to unique needs of early-stage ventures and offer grants, seed funding, and access to investment networks.

Finally, we must create platforms that enhance visibility and cooperation across the African tech landscape. These platforms will allow potential investors identify exciting new startups, provide learning opportunities and allow for success stories to be seamlessly transferred across subregional ecosystems in Africa.

Al Jazeera: How can the tech ecosystem work towards ensuring that Africans beyond urban areas also have access to the benefits of technology?

Ehimuan: One approach is to prioritise infrastructure development, particularly in underserved areas. Governments and private sector players can invest in expanding broadband connectivity, improving network coverage and reducing the cost of internet access.

In addition, initiatives that promote digital literacy and skills development are vital. These initiatives should focus on rural and urban areas, targeting different age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Source: Al Jazeera