Silicon Valley eyes Africa as new tech frontier

AFP
Many African governments have given the tech titans an enthusiastic welcome.
AFP

With its colorful hammocks and table tennis table, a new tech hub in the Lagos metropolis wouldn’t look out of place among the startups on the other side of the world in Silicon Valley.

But the NG_Hub office is in the suburb of Yaba — the heart of Nigeria’s burgeoning tech scene that is attracting interest from global giants keen to tap into an emerging market of young, connected Africans.

In May, both Google and Facebook launched initiatives nearby.

This week, Nigeria’s Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo was in California to court US tech investors for what he said could herald a “fourth industrial revolution” back home.

But it isn’t just Nigeria that is piquing the interest of tech giants.

Last month, Google said it would open Africa’s first artificial intelligence lab in Ghana’s capital, Accra.

Demographics are a key factor behind the drive: Africa’s population is estimated to be 1.2 billion, 60 percent of them under 24. By 2050, the UN estimates the population will double to 2.4 billion.

“There’s a clear opportunity for companies like Facebook and Google to really go in and put a pole in the sand,” said Daniel Ives, a technology researcher at GBH Insights in New York.

“If you look at Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, where is a lot of that growth coming from? It’s international,” he said.

Facebook is operating from the NG_Hub as it doesn’t yet have a permanent office in Nigeria.

The company’s Africa head of public policy, Ebele Okobi, said at the opening of the premises that the goal was to cultivate the nascent technology community.

The social network has pledged to train 50,000 people across the country to “give them the digital skills they need to succeed”, she added.

In exchange, Facebook, which currently has some 26 million users in Nigeria, gets more users and access to a massive market to test new products and strategies.

“We are invested in the ecosystem. Just the fact that they are engaging ... that in of itself is a goal,” she added.

Many African governments have given the tech titans an enthusiastic welcome.

In California, Osinbajo said the Nigerian government will “actively support” Google’s “Next Billion Users” plan to “ensure greater digital access in Nigeria and around the world.”

Few sectors in Africa inspire as much hope as technology, which has the potential to revolutionize everything from health care to farming.

Examples include Ubenwa, a Nigerian startup that has been described as “Shazam for babies,” after the application that identifies music and films from snippets.

Ubenwa analyses a baby’s cry using AI to diagnose birth asphyxia, a major cause of death in Africa when babies don’t get enough oxygen and nutrients before, during or immediately after birth.

Detecting the problem early could save thousands of lives.

“Africans should be responsible to come up with the solutions,” said Tewodros Abebe, a doctoral student studying language technology at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia.

“Unless we are involved, no one can understand the existing problems in our continent.”

Abebe dismissed fears that what Facebook and Google are doing represents a form of so-called cyber colonialism. “Working collaboratively I think is a good way of technology transfer for Africa,” he said.


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