I had the pleasure to speak at the Africa Gathering in London this morning. (twitter feed here).
There were a number of emerging themes through the conference, and not necessarily the ones you might think– access to finance, more capital, education.
Nope. What came up again and again was:
This is Africa. Sometimes problems can seem overwhelming. I have talked about this before, but it bears repeating. My take on it: Break the problems down, solve what you can. Innovate around what you can’t.
Open Source/Open Platforms
FrontlineSMS, Android, Ubuntu Linux– these give you the tools and abilities to build cost-effective, replicable platforms that won’t break the bank. For all the thrill of open source technology in Silicon Valley, the true innovation may come in Africa, where stuff like Microsoft’s failing ability to register its software (due, admittedly, to fighting rampant software piracy) may mean that the sotware is unusable.
Open platforms create frameworks and fertile ground for new innovations. Enough said.
Turn up and do something… and listen when you get there.
The power of doing something, getting over your own inhibitions, going, turning up, is far more important than your ability to make a big, great plan.
On the other hand, the developing world works differently than it does in the developed world. Teddy Ruge of Project Diaspora.suggests getting a member of the diaspora on your team. In whatever case, however, listening is critical. Go. Take a risk. See what works. Give yourself permission to fail, early and often, and learn from your mistakes.
Africans have the solutions to African problems.
You know a lot, but you don’t know the context. Africans can solve African problems– this is the difference between Busines Incubation projects around entrepreneurship and NGO projects– Incubators should offer mentorship rather than direction. The essential difference is that mentorship offers assistance to someone to help them do what they want to do, rather than demanding that they do what you think they should do.
The flip side to the TIA problem is that it’s important to believe that things get better, that the creative, innovative entrepreneur inside can find a solution to the problem. The flip side to mentorship is the encouragement, so that when your entrepreneur finds a wall, he figures out how to go under, around, or through it– or to turn that wall to her own advantage.