For quite some time, it has been a given that China is the current land of opportunity, and companies have focused on how to engage with the nascent Dragon. But already, far-sighted businesspeople—among them the Chinese themselves—are turning their eyes to Africa as the next frontier for growth.
“Everybody knows that Africa is blessed with enormous mineral and other natural resources,” says Business Connexion’s CEO, Benjamin Mophatlane. “But what people are beginning to wake up to is the almost unbelievable wealth of human talent that this cradle of humanity contains. It’s a potent resource in a world in which competitive advantage depends on human talent and ingenuity.”
In order to leverage its human and natural resources, Africa needs to improve its ICT infrastructure dramatically. ICT has really become indistinguishable from business in today’s information economy, and is the enabler of the complex, interconnected supply chains that characterise modern business. Massive investments in ICT technology both by governments and the private sector are needed to equip African businesses to participate fully in the awakening of Africa.
And that’s just the problem. The global economy remains fragile in the wake of the financial crisis and sluggish demand is slowing economic growth generally—with knock-on effects in the ICT sector.
“We expect IT budgets to increase only modestly during 2011, with many state infrastructure projects across the continent similarly delayed or scaled down,” Mophatlane explains. “It’s the chicken and the egg: we need economic growth to fund the necessary investments, but we can’t delay investing because we need the infrastructure to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.”
In a sense, though, these stark challenges can be turned to Africa’s advantage, Mophatlane believes, citing the huge growth in mobile phone usage in Africa over the past years. “Generally Africa lacked all but the most rudimentary telecoms networks and it seemed like laying down all that copper and fibre-optic infrastructure was going to be a huge obstacle,” he points out.
“But then along came mobile phones, which didn’t need all that terrestrial infrastructure, and African adoption rates exceeded expectations: from nothing to a teledensity of more than 30 percent in just 10 years. That revolution continues, but it has already spawned a whole breed of innovations like mobile banking—Kenya’s M-Pesa is the obvious example—and even the pay-as-you-billing option which was pretty much perfected here. A new technology, or technology approach, like cloud computing could help us make the same leap again.”
There is already plenty of anecdotal evidence that African businesses and, perhaps even more importantly, educational institutions, are waking up rapidly to the possibility that cloud computing could indeed offer Africa a way to access the infrastructure and applications it needs to power its businesses and release the genius of its people. And because the business model of cloud computing is premised on pay-per-use (the business model, after all, that pretty much powered the cell phone revolution in Africa), going “into the cloud” offers a way to work within the funding constraints that are a consequence of the weak global economy.
“This kind of model could well enable Africans to equip themselves for a boom similar to the one currently under way in China,” asserts Mophatlane. “And one of our other strengths is the substantial established base of African ICT providers like Business Connexion with the processes and infrastructure to make the cloud a reality here. Providers like us are already in place to empower Africans to connect with each other and the world—which is why we’ve recently rebranded ourselves under the slogan ‘connective intelligence’.”