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Policy activists and technology growth

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The next billion
Google launched a new payments product in India this week, it’s called Tez. While I was surprised at the choice of product, I was not surprised at the selection of market to launch it. It is most likely going to be another one of their next ‘Billion Users’ product or platform. Google currently has seven products with over a billion users.

I attended Google’s most recent annual developer event in Silicon Valley in June and saw a presentation titled “Building for your next Billion users.” Brazil, India and Indonesia are identified as places with the fastest Internet user growth in the world. India alone adds 100 million new users each year, yet 65% of the population is still without Internet access. That deficit is viewed as growth potential.

Nigeria was mentioned in the presentation as the African country with the largest number of internet users and also with the fastest growth rate. We are experiencing growth, but two-thirds of Nigerian internet users still use connections with relatively limited bandwidth. America and most of the Western World seemed to have no growth at all. They have reached their Internet saturation point. It is quite clear where the next battles for consumer internet products would be.

India, Brazil, and Indonesia also share a lot of things in common with Nigeria and the purpose of the Google presentation was to let developers know that these countries were the places where the fastest rate rates of growth were occurring now and in future. In 2020, Google expects one billion unique mobile internet users in India alone.

While Nigeria may not have the same population or growth rates as India, the similarities of these high growth emerging markets present opportunities for products built in any of these markets to scale rapidly throughout all of these countries. We have similar challenges and similar issues.

The African barrier
There are opportunities all over the emerging markets, but a few African technology companies have crossed the African barrier into those markets. On the other hand, a lot of Asian companies have crossed into Africa with great success. The Chinese are even putting significant infrastructure in place to enable growth in some African countries. They are influencing governments from the very top to make these inroads.

Africa is very diverse. While this diversity is an asset, it is also a liability. It could be argued that beyond massive infrastructure deficits, language and culture seem to be a problem limiting regional growth. Access to capital and education are also other hindrances. The same barriers exist elsewhere but why do they still grow? I believe it is because they have forward-thinking governments. Policy and governance seem to be the missing link in Africa.

A lot of African governments are not only unfriendly towards citizens of other countries but their citizens as well. The only common thread with the attitude of African governments towards innovation and technology seems to be a negative one. Over-regulation, red tape and sometimes outright repression are common.

Some African countries have successfully shut down the internet in the last one year just to stifle opposition political activity. These actions are not only harmful to local innovation; they scare away potential investors. I have always fought hard and made a case for Africa with global technology companies that these barriers should be opportunities rather than seen as hindrances. I have also suffered as well. We started a major educational sector technology project in Tanzania that died after the government changed. Inconsistency is also a problem.

Policy
I believe the African barrier is surmountable. Work should start with influencing Policy rather than starting from below. Paul Ahlstrom of Alta Ventures told me recently in San Francisco that it is always better to start at the very top of government. Once national leaders become convinced that innovation is essential for growth, friendlier policies will be established. I agree now from my Tanzania experience.

The internet represents rapid change. It is probably the most significant phenomenon that has happened in the history of humankind. I discovered it late in my 20s, but now, my entire livelihood and work depend on it. It has transformed entire societies mostly for good and recently, it has been used for a lot less than good as well. A lot of governments focus on the negative instead of the positive. They associate internet growth only with political activism. China has a successfully proven model they all seem to emulate.

One hundred million new internet users yearly in India has not caused upheavals, but rather it has created economic growth. I read recently that for the very first time, India may surpass China in exports because of this increase. That is the power of favourable policy. It is policy that has changed Israel and made them a global technology powerhouse in the middle of strife and conflict. The same thing turned Rwanda around and made it arguably the most desirable African technology destination. We cannot hope to create products from the next billion in Africa if barriers prevent this from happening.

I believe that changing policy is not the responsibility of individuals in certain positions, it is the job of everyone in African technology. What have we done today to change status quo? Twitter rants and Facebook posts are not enough. I think the time for cosy armchair engagement is over. Building for the next billion has to start with engaging at the very top to remove policy barriers.


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