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From Tesla to Keke

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PHOTO: ROBYN BECK / AFP

One of my pet peeves is seeing the stark differences in the narrative in the Western tech media about African innovation and innovation in other parts of the world. While cutting edge and futuristic solutions get showcased for those outside Africa, in our case, it is those that “help the African poor” that get attention. We seem to be doomed to the poverty, wars, and corruption narrative, and the only role of tech in Africa is to solve those problems first. How about new stories of technology creating new opportunities for African prosperity through excellence?

Let’s make no mistake; the African poor do not deserve poverty but prosperity. Most of the narratives about innovation helping the poor in Africa are typically “patronizing” and usually extreme “textbook” cases which are sometimes totally out of touch with the reality of creating any scalable prosperity for the benefit of the poor.

The narrative loop
While the conventional narrative that sells about African innovation is the “baby steps narrative” and we seem to love being praised like babies for beginning to learn how to walk, it is the same continent that produced people like Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX and Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu and “First African in Space”. It seems that people forget that those people were both born and grew up in South Africa because of the color of their skin.

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Africa is just not respected by the foreign mainstream media because the typical negative narrative sells more and those who want to make a name from Africa go for shock value. The tech narrative then adapts to the “backward Africa perception.” and focuses on news that it feels “solves the problems” that world sees Africa as having in abundance.

The backward perception of Africa becomes self-fulfilling as charlatans who keep pretending to help, take advantage of it and do not move us forward. A lot of NGO scams have recently been exposed, and donors are now much wiser. The bigger problem is that many young African innovators fall into repeating the “solving problems” narrative because they want to be validated outside. I believe that the solutions that create opportunities within Africa and beyond have as much validity (if not more) than those about solving problems.

Tesla in Africa
The motivation for the title of this article came one morning as we were driving behind some motorcycles in Lome, Togo. I looked at how things still seemed to work while appearing in chaos and I was wondering why we were still dealing with motorbikes as a means of transport when other countries were moving to self-driving electric vehicles?

Technology, by its very nature, is deflationary as it tends to make things cheaper over time rather than expensive. I tried to imagine how long it would take for us to make the transition from motorcycle to electric vehicles once again with the help of the Chinese who would make them cheaper and it hit me right there. I was also guilty of thinking in the narrative of a “backward Africa,” making a linear rather than quantum progression. I realized that it should be Tesla and others trying to compete or collaborate with African innovators to build and adapt to African markets rather than otherwise.

Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, recently announced that they were opening their first Tesla shop in South Africa and some people started making snide remarks online about South Africa’s recent electricity challenges. There are some facts about South Africa that a lot of people don’t know. Luxury brands like BMW have been manufacturing cars in South Africa in large numbers for decades, and South Africa has the largest market in Africa for luxury goods. Even with their current electricity issues, they are an excellent place for Tesla not only to manufacture but sell cars.

Others asked if Tesla was coming to Nigeria next after South Africa, and I mentioned that it was not impossible. Luxury brands like Porsche and Jaguar have shops in Nigeria, so why not Tesla? Another thing people forget is that beyond cars, Tesla is an infrastructure company with its “supercharger network” and a data gathering company with its vehicles as AI sensors gathering data and aggregating it for machine learning purposes. Nigeria may present an opportunity for further innovation in those areas for our benefit. While it is probably easier for Tesla to sell its “Powerwall” batteries to Nigerian homes, Nigeria may offer an opportunity for fully solar powered and operated car supercharger locations.

Something that isn’t also given prominence in the media is that the renewable energy industry in Africa is probably one of the fastest growing in the world, and it is ground zero for investment into research and development.
Keke and the road problem

The biggest hindrance to the realization of a Tesla operation in Nigeria is not the availability of electricity or data access but the quality of our roads. While Tesla’s machine learning algorithms will benefit from training against bias and on uncertainty in Nigeria, Elon Musk will not rebuild our roads for his cars. This problem may present another opportunity for iteration; Tesla can go into the LSEV (Low-Speed Electric Vehicle) business indirectly by providing its batteries to power tricycles or Kekes (as they are called in Nigeria) with electricity.

Kekes are already a regulated transit solution adapted to our poor road infrastructure. If Elon Musk does not do it, others will. Many innovators like Maza Health in Ghana have adapted tricycles to various alternate uses because of their versatility. It will take more than one article to explain all the possible iterations of this potential collaboration, but the idea should be clear that nothing is impossible in Africa. Tech is not just meant to solve problems but to create opportunities and the most significant untapped opportunities remain in Africa.­

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