Silicon Valley Sets Its Sights on Africa

Google and Facebook want to bring the Internet—and with it, startup culture—to 4 billion people who’ve never had it. But Africa’s version of Silicon Valley will be uncharted territory.

Mike Blake/Reuters

Google’s aggressive plan to bring the Internet to over one billion new people—primarily rural Africans and Southeast Asians—seems like something out of a science fiction movie. The idea calls for the production of solar powered balloons that would float up to an altitude ranging between 60,000 and 90,000 feet—two to three times that of commercial air travel. The balloons would drift in the stratosphere while “signals are transmitted from the balloons to a specialized Internet antenna mounted to the side of a home or workplace, or directly to LTE-enabled devices,” according to a Google blog post. Shortly thereafter, Facebook announced a similar initiative, although their plan calls for the use of drones instead of balloons.

In either case, the goal is the same: bring the Internet to the 4 billion people who have never had it.

At this point, the developed world takes the internet for granted. It’s so embedded in the framework of our everyday lives that it’s hard to imagine a time before it existed. Think about having to get up and go to a library to run research for a project, or pull out a map to figure out the right route through town. One thing that would seem monumentally more difficult would be: how do you start a company?

A great benefit of the ubiquity of the Internet in the developed world has been the facilitation of a new age of entrepreneurship. The open and easy access to information has allowed regular people to build empires from the comfort of their own homes (or dorm rooms). However, the myriad of problems that Western entrepreneurs have been solving are vastly different than those faced by the developing world. Whereas a startup here may be working on a faster way to deliver liquor to your apartment, or helping you swipe your way to a one night stand, the problems that African entrepreneurs will be solving are problems that the Western world solved long ago.

“I think the companies will be vastly different because our needs are so different to the west. We’re basically 1940’s USA,” says Heshan de Silva, a 25 year old Kenyan entrepreneur and owner of the de Silva group, a venture capitalist firm in Nairobi. “We have a significant percentage of our population who are living on literally no money at all, and those people have needs. All the companies that pop up will be addressing those people much more than the middle income to high income people,” he says.

As more people come online, the most basic tasks—such as going out to the market to sell produce—will become more efficient. Currently, SMS-based apps allow merchants to check market prices from home as opposed to physically walking to check market prices. That in itself was a huge innovation, but de Silva says access to markets is still a problem for everyone. He believes that the introduction of the Internet into the lives of everyday merchants will allow them to open their businesses from a strict local focus to an international one. Africans, unlike us, are not striving to shop local. As more come online, they will actively seek better selling prices elsewhere and also source their goods internationally.

It can be hard to wrap your head around the problems facing the continent because they might seem ancient to us. In Africa there are over a billion people spread across 54 countries, and although virtually every household has a cell phone, the continent is still far away from overwhelming smartphone adoption. That’s why people like Gustav Praekelt, a TED fellow and co-founder of the Praekelt Foundation, believe that the problems require a wholly Afro-centric approach.

“Let’s say that in five years time, we know that every single person in Africa will have a mobile device but will also be able to transact and participate in the information economy,” says Praekelt. “That’s not true at the moment. Someone might have a mobile device, but it might be a dumb phone so they can’t actually participate. Look, right now, in Africa, why are we using Instagram and Facebook and Google search? These are great services, but can you imagine the types of services that we could build which are aimed at and built by the people that actually live in these countries, and not in San Francisco?”

Some of the most explosive opportunities could be based around things that the Western world seems reluctant to adopt. While passionate early adopters see Bitcoin as the future, the vast majority of the Western world hasn’t bought in. That’s where Africa has a chance to carve out a niche according to Njeri Rionge, recently dubbed by Forbes as one of Africa’s most successful women. “The traditional ways of doing business will remain but there will be this new interesting nuance of mobile money and crypto currency,” Rionge says. “I have a sense that crypto-currency and mobile money [are] going to take off in the emerging markets more so than in the developed world, which then means that Africa has a huge opportunity to create its own startups in that space.”

Part of the reason for that, she says, is because “the emerging markets don’t have their so called policies and regulatory structures as strong as they do in the developed world.” The ironic part is that the lack of proper governmental structures, which have impeded development for so long, could actually spur it with the mass adoption of the internet.

Whatever the future holds for Africa, optimism certainly abounds. Google’s Field Development Director Kai Wulff says, “the internet may look different in Africa than in other parts of the world, and the applications that Africans create and use may be different too. Whatever that looks like, I am certain that we haven’t even seen a fraction of what’s possible.” It’ll certainly be a combination of ideas borrowed from the West and completely homegrown solutions in industries like agriculture, which de Silva sees as the biggest opportunity over the next 10 years. African agriculture will have the benefit of borrowing Internet-age ideas and implementing them especially as a swath of new agro-focused startups are built in the West.

Praekelt doesn’t want to stick to the basics, although his foundation has been instrumental in collaborating with Facebook on internet.org to do just that. They’ve helped build MAMA, the mobile alliance for maternal action, as well as a similar initiative that delivers educational information to teenage girls. Both projects only exist because internet.org enables users to access info via the Internet for free.

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“I think essential services are important, but they aren’t the only thing,” Praekelt says. “Just because you have slightly constrained resources doesn’t mean that you only care about essential services. We are exactly the same in Africa—same desires, needs, and social ties—so obviously essential services like healthcare, free education, and access to government are important, but I don’t think those are the only things people are interested in.”

He continues, “It’s important to provide the other things, like: what would Netflix for Africa look like? It has to be a Netflix that’s optimized for mobile devices because you can’t charge your phone every two hours here.”

Despite the obvious ongoing problems with disease and access to basics, the future of Africa is bright. Bringing the Internet to all those who don’t have it is certainly not the be all and end all, but it’s an exceptional step forward. It will be fascinating to see what sprouts from the onboarding of all these new people, each with their own unique ideas to solve the litany of problems they face every day.