At the beginning of the technology wave in Africa (read Nigeria), many founders romanticized the word disruption. To many, it was all about changing the way we did things. If you have suffered many of the challenges that often pose before the regular Nigerian, you will want to change things too. No wonder Muhammadu Buhari’s successful campaign in 2015 resonated well with many Nigerians. Change is a great thing especially in a society where things do not work and systems fail citizens.
In 2017, while I tried my feet in the education market, I soon realized that while classes needed to improve, millions of people did not even have access to quality education at all. This meant millions of students had needed help, while we were instead focusing on the small market where we were finding it difficult to sell our software. What was also true was that, even though we had a great differentiation from the alternatives, the end results were pretty much similar. The competition, despite our differentiation, was already there and we only hoped our differentiation would give us that extra leap. Perhaps, we would have pulled our weight if we stayed, but the numbers were glaring. Much more people could not access the service we wanted to provide. We might have had to sit in a small market for a long time.
Millions of people do not have access to electricity; millions do not have access to quality health; millions have no access to quality education, market, credit, health insurance, water, good housing, sanitation and clean energy and so on. This means millions and millions of Nigerians and Africans are unable to even access basic needs and would jump at solutions that make all these easy and less costly. Having more and more entrepreneurs and businesses develop solutions that improve access to basic needs using scalable technologies, that ensure they can reach and sustain the provision of their services and products to millions of Nigerians, is the clarion call. This is how we can improve millions of lives faster and raise our standard of living.
Thus, the big focus of technology in Africa should be inclusion. How do we bring improved services closer to people who do not have them at all? Technologies like the internet, artificial intelligence, cloud computer, USSD services are scalable infrastructure to drive widespread inclusion.
The just concluded election is another reason why we have to take inclusion seriously. Thousands of people had meaningful conversations on ‘elite’ platforms like Twitter or in small elite/intellectual gatherings. People in the “third” force, who whether by lack of financial power or political structure restricted their conversations and campaigns to small “intellectual” groups, somewhat believed they stood a chance. Expectedly, the millions of people who would also vote but were not included in these conversations in meaningful ways, eventually decided the future of the country, most often to the lamentations of the “intellectual” group.
Inclusion remains a big challenge in Africa and needs to be taken with more urgency. While people need improved services, many do not even have any service at all. Simply producing services for a few people, might be rewarding, but is also not enough for the African entrepreneur. While we start from small beginnings, our focus should be on providing our services at scale, as this not only eventually drops costs, it also ensures more people who may not have access to these services at all get to enjoy them.
What is true is that it is usually difficult to serve excluded markets. Take banks, for instance. More than half of Nigerians are excluded from banking services. That’s over 100 million people. With all the resources banks have, it just makes sense to want to expand their pie into the largely untapped market. The only reasons they would not have done so are that it is extremely difficult and uneconomical to do. This is where financial entrepreneurs come in. Their work is to de-risk the market and create solutions that can expand this pie. It is the same for every other sector too. Education entrepreneurs have to answer the question, how can we make quality education more accessible to more people? Art entrepreneurs have to answer the question, how can we improve access to market for more creative people? And it goes on and on. That is how we get into untapped markets which is like most of the African market.
While disruption is awesome, we must do more to get people who are excluded from key services into the net. This way, we will truly contribute to the widespread development of the African continent.
Thank you very much, Hafsah.