Review of iAfrikan's Annual Tech Round-Up 2017

The Annual Tech Round-Up 2017 was held at Metta Nairobi, bringing together over eighty participants and panellists drawn from various fields to discuss the stories and trends that have emerged over the course of 2016 in African tech.

The discussion focused on five key areas identified by iAfrikan as having the most potential for disruption and innovation in the continent at the moment, and the panelists were drawn from a variety of sectors to share what they thought were the key issues and points worth noting in these sectors.

  • ICT Policy and Governance: This topic was chosen because governments play a key role in the growth and development of the ICT industry anywhere in the world. In Africa, however, governments often play the opposite role, hampering growth in the sector through laws and other disincentives that frustrate growth and hamper development. The panel brought together speakers representing government, regulatory agencies, the private sector, and civil society, to discuss the issues that have emerged in the various sectors, and how they can work together to grow the industry.

  • Use Of Technology In Education: With countries like Kenya looking to mainstream the use of technology in basic education, this panel was set up to discuss the various initiatives being undertaken to teach technical skills related to ICT, such as coding and programming languages, as well as how to make tech education more accessible to everyone.

  • Starting Up In Afrika: Startups are at the cutting edge of tech entrepreneurship, but very often we see them failing to grow due to any one of several mistakes they make in the initial stages. This panel brought together an entrepreneur and two people who have worked closely with startup founders to help them grow their businesses to discuss how startups can grow into viable businesses while avoiding the common pitfalls that others in the industry have experienced.

  • Connecting A Billion Afrikans To The Internet: With only about one in six Africans online, this topic has a particular significance in that it looks at ways to radically change the lives of those not yet online by connecting them to the internet. The challenge of poor infrastructure, coupled with the relatively high cost of access means that there are plenty of barriers to overcome before everyone can be connected, and the panel was tasked with looking for a way forward.

  • Looking At The Year Ahead: One of the things that we do at our Annual Round-Ups is to come up with a roadmap for the future. As 2016 showed us, we can often go horribly wrong when trying to anticipate events and how people will react to them. This panel, which consisted of two editors and a lawyer, took the challenge of looking into the future based on some of the things that emerged in the past 12 months and attempted to make sense of it all.

The event started off with a keynote presentation from Envir Fraser, Chief Strategy Officer and Principal at Convergence Partners focusing on open access and key trends such as information security, blockchain and fintech, with Envir expressing his hope that the key players and regulators across the continent will collaborate in order to drive innovation and deepen inclusion so that technology can benefit everyone on the continent.

The first panel of the day focused on ICT Policy and Governance. On the panel was Dr Katherine Getao, ICT Secretary from Kenya's Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology, Ezekiel Mutua, CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board, Envir Fraser, Chief Strategy Officer at Convergence Partners, and Nanjira Sambuli, Digital Equality Advocacy Manager at The Web Foundation. The discussion was moderated by Brenda Wambui of Brainstorm.

The discussion looked at whether governments more interested in using tech to hamper rather than to facilitate access to information, with examples of social media shutdowns, blocking internet access, and in some cases regulating online content. They also discussed how tech can make a difference in the lives of Africans, and how tech can be used to make governments more accountable.

The panellists shared how governments can and have leveraged on tech to include the citizenry more, the policies that can be put in place to enable technology to benefit more people, how the citizenry can we use technology to keep governments accountable.

With Kenya being one of the several African countries that will have elections this year, along with Rwanda, Angola and Kenya, they are likely to rely heavily on technology to conduct these elections.

The panel concluded with the members discussing the regulation the ICT industry, giving pros and cons. While they all agreed that the industry needs to be regulated, what keeps happening is that the regulations are often carried too far, leading to policing of the industry.

Use of Technology in Education Panel
Use of Technology in Education Panel, left to right: Amadou Daffe (CEO & Co-founder of Gebeya), Gossy Ukanwoke (Higher Education Investor & Founder, Beni American University & EduTech) and Dr. Chao Mbogho (Kenya Methodist University)

The second panel focused on The Use of Technology in Education, featuring Amadou Daffe, CEO and co-founder of Gebeya, Dr Chao Mbogho of the Kenya Methodist University, and Gossy Ukanwoke, founder of Beni American University and EduTech.

The panelists shared their experiences and first encounters with technology, with all of them stating that they encountered it quite late in their education, but they were able to capitalize on this to feed their curiosity and interest to the point where they set up companies in the case of Amadou and Gossy to enable others to learn using technology, and in the case of Dr Mbogho, to set up mentorship programmes for students taking IT and related courses at her university.

The discussion looked at the state of tech education in Africa, and whether tech education in its current state is able to meet the demand as Africa transitions towards a knowledge economy. With Gebeya on the panel, the question of whether tech education startups are a solution or a stopgap measure also came up, with the panel agreeing that while universities have long had the monopoly on teaching technical courses, startups have the advantage of being able to change their programmes quickly to meet the needs of the market, while traditional institutions are encumbered by red tape and institutional inertia, meaning they are always playing catchup.

The third panel looked at the dynamics of starting and running a startup in Africa, and on it were Phares Kariuki of Node Africa, Aaron Fu of Nest, and Asha Mweru of Sinapis Group. They looked at some of the issues that businesses face while they are in the formation stage, starting with funding, overcoming regulatory challenges, the importance of doing due diligence, and whether it matters where you incorporate your startup.


Podcast featuring the "Starting Up In Afrika" panel discussion at the Annual Tech Round-Up 2017

One common problem for many startups is that they often focus on metrics and ticking boxes before laying the groundwork. The panel discussed the things startups need to focus on, starting with who you need on your team. It helps, as Aaron Fu pointed out, to start by running your idea past the people close to you, or the people you look up to in order to get their opinions. Sometimes the ideas we may think are stellar won't even get off the ground.

As for incorporation, Phares pointed out that a number of businesses think that setting up headquarters in a country that may appear favourable means that they will be able to operate without a hitch. However, regulators are catching up on this, with the example of companies headquartered in Mauritius, which has a favourable tax regime, but are running operations in Kenya, now having to pay income tax to the Kenya Revenue Authority.

Asha, whose Sinapis Group empowers aspiring entrepreneurs to develop business ideas by taking them through an intensive training programme, says that one mistake that startups make is that they don't expect to grow large enough for them to actually have to pay taxes, and this brings complications further down the road.

All the panellists agreed that founders have to understand their businesses properly first before taking them out into the world, and if the proposal doesn't make sense, don't waste your time on it. If it does, focus your energies on making it grow and fulfil its potential.

Nanjira Sambuli Web Foundation
Nanjira Sambuli (Digital Equality Advocacy Manager at The Web Foundation) speaking on the Connecting a Billion Africans to the Internet panel discussion

The fourth panel was on Connecting a Billion Africans to the Internet, and it had Martin Mumo, IT Manager at Jumia Kenya, Nanjira Sambuli of The Web Foundation, and Liz Orembo, an Internet policy researcher at the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet). This discussion focused on the factors that have led to only about 15% of Africans have access to the internet, and what can be done to get more people online.

One factor is that the accessibility offered by mobile broadband does not necessarily translate into usability. The fact that people are able to get online, Liz pointed out, does not mean that they will be able to find content that is relevant and engaging enough for them to stay online.

Another argument is that projects such as Facebook's Free Basics, where they work with mobile operators to make internet access free for certain sites, is turning the internet into a series of 'walled gardens', where the content is limited to what the service provider approves. Rather than getting more people online, as Nanjira pointed out, zero-rating did not bring most mobile Internet users online for the first time. It would, therefore, make more sense to invest in public wi-fi as a means of expanding access.

One of the most visible benefits of expanded access is increased opportunities to do business online, as Martin pointed out. While e-commerce has taken a while to take off in Kenya, Jumia and other players in the space have greatly benefited from increased connectivity, enabling small businesses to sell their products online.

In order to connect the continent, investment needs to go into public infrastructure projects that have the goal of connecting as many people as possible, with the benefit of free access and connectivity, so that everyone can benefit from getting online.

The final panel of the day was dedicated to Looking Forward to 2017. On the panel were Nzilani Mweu, a senior associate at Kiptinness and Odhiambo Advocates, Techweez founder and Managing Editor Martin Gicheru, and iAfrikan Editor-in-Chief Eric Mugendi, talking about key trends that they foresee for the year ahead, and where the big stories of 2017 will likely come from.

Looking At The Year Ahead
Looking At The Year Ahead Panel: Left to Right, Brenda Wambui (Otherwise Podcast), Martin Gicheru (Techweez), Nzilani Mweu (Kiptinness & Odhiambo Associates) and Eric Mugendi (iAfrikan)

The discussion looked at how the fake news phenomenon could play out in Africa. While it is not a new phenomenon, it has been around for a while, as the panellists pointed out, and one of the ways that we can combat it is by constantly fact-checking the stories we hear. The immediate assumption should be that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Technology will continue to influence the lives of Africans, and we are likely to see more of these stories in the rest of 2017. Given the number of stories that we saw last year relating to public-private partnerships, like the drone projects in Rwanda and Madagascar, we could see more initiatives looking to overcome the infrastructure challenge in Africa.

We are also likely to see more issues related to information security come up, as data becomes increasingly valuable and we put more of our lives online every day.

Elections will also feature heavily this year, especially considering how prominent they were last year, given the shutdowns that happened in Uganda and The Gambia during the polls in these two countries.

When asked what they had on their radar when looking forward into 2017, the panellists said that they expect more nuanced coverage of stories coming out of Africa. There will be some discourse on the role of technology in our daily lives, and we are likely to see more African startups take on the world with their innovations and inventions.

We look forward to covering these stories and more as we cover and discuss the key tech-related issues that are affecting our continent.

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