Networks and Tech Entrepreneurship in Africa

At the Berkman Center last Tuesday, Ethan Zuckerman and Eric Osiakwan gave a talk on The Climate of Innovation Around Information Technology in sub-Saharan Africa. Here is my summary of Ethan's portion of the talk.

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In the 1990's, the physical location of all the critical elements of a successful tech venture [programmers, sys admins, sales, content, management] mattered a great deal. Analee Saxenion's 1998 classic "Regional Advantage" discusses what made Silicon Valley successful than Boston's Rt. 128 Tech Corridor.

The key is choosing the network model over the autarkic model. In Silicon Valley, changing companies frequently was encouraged, allowing talented employees to change jobs frequently and promote new innovation. In Boston, everyone tried to build everything in-house, which was a recipe for failure.

Today, the model has become more decentralized, to the possible benefit of African economies. The need for the critical elements still exists, but they can be in Orlando or Cape Town or Toronto, all working on a project based in Accra. This is promising.

One can see this evolution in social as well as economic ventures. In the aftermath of the 2007-2008 Kenyan Presidential Election Crisis, one saw these networks emerge in six distinct ways, demonstrating the sagacity of these networks [Nota Bene: I'm co-authoring a paper on this topic w/ Juliana Rotich to be publish later this fall in Harvard's Berkman Center Working Paper Series']

1. SMS used to promote violence;
2. Mashada.com- a popular Kenyan message board shut down after many violent messages, and the subsequent creation of Ihavenotribe.com
3. Blogs became Newspapers, 48 hour period where broadcast journalism was not reporting live, pretty common to read blogs over radio;blogs as mass media
4. PR Campaign Globally- a group of writers who wrote in major publications to change the narrative away from genocide,
5. Mama Mikes- alternative remittance, send $100 as a voucher for petrol, mobile phone minutes, with far less overhead than Western Union
6. Ushahidi.com- a platform for reporting incidents of violence via mobile and posting them online.

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The decentralization is promising for both social and economic entrepreneurs. It would be great to see a study of how these networks are contributing to wealth in African economies. A possible idea for Fletcher's Center for Emerging Market Enterprises.

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