In 2000, I founded the Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) with a simple but powerful objective: to bridge the digital divide between young people living and going to school in Nigeria, and their digital peers in the United States. YTF was founded shortly after the Internet bubble and the dotcom era, at a time when it was difficult to persuade others of my aim and the term Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) was still nascent.
In recent years, the situation has changed dramatically. Africa has become a testing ground for breakthrough ideas, innovative high-tech products and disruptive start-ups. With over 650 million mobile subscribers in Africa, it’s no wonder so many multinationals, entrepreneurs and educators are looking to tap the continent’s potential. Access to the Internet and the increasing ease of communication with mobile phones is an indication of how the continent is adapting to newer technologies. Africa has opened up a whole new world with information at its core, stimulating entrepreneurship and innovation.
The notion of social entrepreneurship was unknown, and I was frequently asked: “Why are you doing this?” “How are you going to make money?” and “Why bother if you can’t change the system?” It is different today. Businesses without a genuine and measurable social mission are frowned on. The answer to “How is the innovation fundamentally changing society, creating jobs, enacting positive social impact?” matters. Creating a society that encourages social entrepreneurship and makes it easy for young people, in particular, to think this way requires a network of interlocking organizations, policies and cultural attitudes –an entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Entrepreneurship has blossomed in Africa. It is a force that mobilizes other resources to meet unmet market demand; the ability to create and build something from practically nothing; the process of creating value by pulling together a package of resources to exploit an opportunity. For many countries, such as Nigeria, the primary socioeconomic goal is to improve quality of life. Achieving this depends, in part, on the competitiveness of local firms, which rely on innovation and entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs must be nurtured by institutions, and through deliberate innovative action that stimulates change.
The population of Africa is likely to double within a generation. With a major increase in its share of young people and a median age of 19, the continent is the world’s “youngest” region. This presents a rare opportunity to help transform an entire generation through the effective long-term investment in education, healthcare, manufacturing and banking.
Africa’s young technology entrepreneurs have become the vanguard of innovation. Weekly road shows provide free training, building legions of talented, technical people. There has been a cultural shift from consumers of technology to innovators. As a result, people now believe that change is possible.
Technology today is democratizing and personalizing manufacturing; 3D printing technologies, for instance, can give local communities access to facilities needed to produce and market their own products using everyday materials in a sustainable way. Other examples include solar panels for off-grid electricity and mesh potatoes for expanding mobile and Internet connectivity to rural communities.
The generation of “digital natives” has enabled YTF to continually review and enhance its training curriculum to stay current with the demands of young people. They are not looking for one-way interaction; they multi-task, consume on several channels at once, require information assistance rather than technical support. They are the “now”, and we are right there with them.
Author: Njideka U. Harry is Founder and Chief Executive, Youth for Technology Foundation, and a Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013.