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Four ways African countries can ensure digital innovation benefits the entire population

TechCrunch TechCrunch 12/05/2016 Claver Gatete

When Rwanda’s socioeconomic turnaround is discussed, the country’s disciplined approach to economic growth and commitment to avoiding the pitfalls of corruption are usually highlighted. However, while these components certainly played a significant role, another key factor in Rwanda’s transformation is often overlooked.

Following the 1994 genocide, the country’s leadership truly embraced the responsibility that came with their new positions, but were also humble enough to recognize that any process that focused too heavily on a handful of leaders would inevitably fail.

Instead, they pioneered a development philosophy called inclusive development that centers on the basic recognition that every citizen of Rwanda is a partner with the government in driving and achieving our goals. Unless we collaborated directly with the people, the benefits of our work would never be maximized.

As technological innovation and startup success spurs economic growth around the world, there is a growing concern that this new wealth generation is benefitting only a limited few, instead of sparking a global revolution that removes boundaries, promotes equality and reduces the wage gap. Yet, this does not need to be the reality, and Africa is uniquely positioned to apply the following lessons to ensure that technological progress doesn’t just create a new class of wealthy individuals, but drives socioeconomic progress for the wider population.

Demand and promote equality

One of the biggest concerns in the technology industry is the limited role that women have played in core development positions, which in turn has an impact on the disappointingly low number of women in leadership roles at major tech companies. But for any society that wishes to reap the benefits of digital innovation, promoting gender equality is an absolute necessity.

Beyond the critical value of having diverse opinions emanating from leadership positions, enabling the entire population to develop as future innovators allows a society to tap into the full potential of its citizens and benefit everyone.

The more people are empowered to take control of their own financial destiny, the more they will be able to lead changes in their community.

In many African countries that are only now cultivating flourishing technology industries, there is a unique opportunity to right this critical wrong before it even becomes an issue. In Rwanda, for example, there is a near 50 percent rate of women enrolled in computer engineering courses in higher education and programs are being run throughout the country to introduce young girls to engineering at younger ages, thereby fostering a tech ecosystem that will promote equality.

The more diverse the pool of potential technological leaders, the more likely we will be able to identify the solutions that can change the world. It isn’t just an ethical necessity, but an economic one as well.

Enhance private innovation with public backing

For every successful startup, there are a handful that never achieve their potential due to a lack of opportunity. While it is important that entrepreneurs work hard to find ways to succeed, it is equally important that governments identify and fill certain gaps where they can be of assistance. Even now, when there are many external investors intrigued by the growth of the African economy and looking to get involved, there are still gaps that can best be filled by the unique resources and reach of government institutions.

Whether it be funding, opportunities to pilot new technologies or other public/private partnerships, governments have a powerful ability to serve an important function in the flourishing of an innovative ecosystem, especially while external investors gain confidence in it. Cross-pollination between the private and public sectors can have huge benefits, and the more governments can actively facilitate these relationships, the better.

Invest in education

The battle to create more efficient bureaucracies in Africa is ongoing, and while there have been tremendous steps taken across the continent to follow the lead of countries that have made it a priority, this is just the first step. Ensuring that the wider population benefits from the progress achieved through digital innovation is directly connected to how much of this we, in turn, invest back directly into the people.

Rwanda’s “disadvantage” of being a landlocked country taught us very early on that our most important resource is our people. Whether a country benefits from revenues from oil, mining or any other natural resource, the key to long-term growth is enhancing the capabilities of its human capital. Education must be the focus — and not just in the classic sense of primary, secondary and higher education facilities, but also in vocational training and hands-on skill-building for society’s youth.

The more people are empowered to take control of their own financial destiny, the more they will be able to lead changes in their community and take ownership over the wider development of their countries.

Invest in infrastructure

While it isn’t exactly an earth-shattering proclamation that infrastructure is key to development, there is a specific application in Africa that must remain at the center. We have the opportunity to learn from the challenges and mistakes of other regions and avoid the long-term negative implications of certain decisions. Sustainability in our infrastructure development and a focus on the next generation of technologies will dictate the ability to drive success.

The growth of the global technology industry gives every country the chance to benefit entire populations through digital innovation, but only if governments can offer support and enable citizens to take advantage. Africa’s qualities as a young, developing and motivated region will do well to ensure that the age of digital innovation will bring success to the wider population.

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