KIGALI – What value does the digital economy provide Africa? The largest technology companies all have strategies for getting their products into African markets, but few have plans to provide what Africans truly need: jobs in the economy of the future.
Africa’s population is projected to soar from 1.2 billion today to 2.4 billion by 2050. Over the same period, the tech titans of Silicon Valley and other hubs will be using their stockpiles of cash to transform the global economy, through innovations such as self-driving vehicles, genetic modification, and even the colonization of space.
And yet the prospects are bleak for Africans interested in playing any sort of role in shaping how these technologies influence their lives. Everywhere one looks, the technology picture is the same. Free digital products have been useful. In some cases – such as email, mapping, and social media – they have been transformative. But it hardly ever translates into local ownership. Even as tech revenues soar on the continent, almost no tech jobs are being created for Africans. Indeed, Silicon Valley could soon face a backlash similar to the reaction to Hollywood’s failure to promote black talent.
Tech companies recognize the importance of Africa, which will soon account for a quarter of the world’s young people. Asian companies like Samsung and Huawei are active on the continent and likely to outpace their flashier American competitors in the contest to introduce the much-vaunted Internet of Things. Microsoft and IBM have programs that target Africa, and General Electric has declared that it is seeking to turn itself into a “digital industrial giant” on the continent. Twitter, Facebook, and Google have gained the lion’s share of digital traffic in Africa at almost no cost.
Apple, however, is nearly irrelevant, with a market share of less than 3% on the continent (where its iPhone is being outsold by the hapless Blackberry). The company has shown no sign that it intends to design any product that would be affordable in Africa.
When it comes to jobs, every tech company looks as disconnected as Apple. The African-American employees of Twitter, Facebook, and Google could fit on a single Airbus A380. African-born executives at these and other tech companies are even rarer – and those who have found jobs often are disillusioned. “It is soul-sucking to be a high-talent African at a Silicon Valley company,” one African tech leader said in an interview with one of us. “You leave because you get tired of fighting for attention and authority, and being reminded how lucky you are to work for them.”
In Africa, the employment opportunities are pitiful. Twitter has no operations in Africa. Google employs only about 100 people on the continent. And Facebook’s lone African office is staffed with fewer than 50 people – hardly enough to run an average supermarket.
Even if one disregards parochial employment practices, the space between the availability of technology products and the availability of tech jobs in Africa looms large. Targeted projects – such as Facebook’s Internet.org – are designed to employ only experienced talent (almost always expatriates).
Tech companies fall over themselves to boast that they are creating jobs in Africa, touting training programs and startup competitions. Google promises to train one million Africans in digital skills. But what’s the value of tech training if there are no tech jobs?
Young African graduates in science, math, and engineering are told they can get ahead by becoming entrepreneurs. But the continent lacks the capital, customer base, and talent that give entrepreneurs in developed economies at least a remote chance of tech startup success. Without good entry-level job opportunities to develop skills and pursue careers, African graduates are falling further behind.
Offering real jobs to build an indigenous workforce is good business. It is the only path to a sustainable place in the African market – and it will also be the best source of Africa’s future entrepreneurs.