The annual Sentech Africa Tech Week 2023 welcomed over 400 guests to the Century City Conference Centre in the host city, City of Cape Town, for another exciting chapter in the continent’s innovation conversation. Those guests were treated to deep thoughts on the solutions to Africa’s many problems from 60 expert speakers who shared knowledge and insights from their specific domains.
Getting in tune
“I’m a musician because of the computer. I love the engineering that goes into it and that’s why I had to go back to my community to teach the kids and help them understand the world that I love, so that they can have the same or better success,” said musician, tech CEO and innovator will.i.am in conversation with Leanne Manas in the continent’s first interview via hologram.
The talk was powered by Proto, the world’s first holographic communications platform, that spawned out of the NFT revolution as a way to enable in-the-home 3D visuals. will.i.am beamed onto stage from his Los Angeles studio and he set the tone for two intense days of intellectual exploration of the unique technological moment the world is in.
“Whatever it is that we have built, it all went through the human mind. But we’re now at an intersection where it will be filtered through AI that has its own algorithmic biases. A lot of people’s jobs are at stake, including mine. I can’t make music the same way I did in 1993, today. Can we be a part of making that future less threatening? Yes. We’re in the fourth industrial revolution that is forcing us to make new things in new ways, using the tools and technology we have now.” – will.i.am
Technologist and conference co-host Susan Oh responded with her own take on the impact of AI – a topic that dominated the Sentech Africa Tech Week dialogue. She envisions a future where whatever can be automated will decrease in value and the things that cannot scale, like human intellect, will fetch premium prices.
South Africa’s Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Mondi Gungubele, expressed the government’s concern that citizens may be ill-prepared for the current pace of advancement in the world of technology.
“We need to build human capital because too many South Africans do not work. Our strategy as government is to train young people in data science, robotics and cloud computing.” – Minister Gungumele
Africa’s unemployment woes are well-documented, and the continent’s citizens have never been taken seriously in the technology innovation space. “Africa has been seen as consumers and that has to change,” said Sentech CEO Mlamli Booi in a passionate keynote address that also reminded the audience that, despite the challenges, we are all lucky to be alive in a time of endless opportunity.
He also touched on the transformative potential of technology if used correctly in Africa. This is of particular interest to Sentech with its role in connecting private and public solutions and establishing the smart village utopia of President Ramaphosa’s dreams.
Those smart cities and villages that government has established a development and selection criteria for have not materialised since the nation’s president first mentioned them as a national key point in his 2020 State of the Nation Address, but Sentech assured the murmuring audience that they are happening.
“Silicon Valley didn’t start out the way it looks now. Now is the time for us to plant and plough the seeds of innovation that will help us build technology for tomorrow.” – Mlamli Booi
Booi’s colleague Marlon Finnis, Interim Executive: Managed Infrastructure Business at Sentech, highlighted some of the obstacles that face tech entrepreneurs, lamenting the pace of regulation that lags far behind the speed of innovation. That disconnect between government response and government needs is a major limiting factor for the technology industry, and a major concern for investors like Llew Claasen, Newton Partners co-founder.
He explained in a vibrant panel discussion with fellow VCs and incubators that Africa cannot expect growth to happen without creating a sustaining environment for start-ups and SMEs to scale within the continent’s borders. The investors all agreed that they look for the path of least resistance and stifling regulatory environments, or inaction from regulators can create uncertainty – which becomes friction.
It begins with education
“We can’t talk about the future and not acknowledge how far we have come with access to education,” remarked Shirley Eadie, head of education innovation for the National Education Collaboration Trust, in a lively discussion about the role of technology in the future of Africa’s education.
This panel was hosted by Odin Education and the company head Ajit Gopalakrishnan pulled no punches in his commentary on the state of education on the continent.
“When I look at how far generative AI has come, I think it was a mistake to focus on coding as much as we did a few years ago. I don’t think coding is going to be around for a long time, AI is going to do most of it.” – Ajit Gopalakrishnan
His further thoughts on a concept he calls “mental state capture” where Africans are taught to follow and not think for themselves is a major reason that Africa hasn’t been leaders in any technology revolution. The rest of the panel reluctantly agreed that the current education model must change from passing on and testing knowledge, to teaching skills.
The education problem, however, is neither unique to South Africa nor is it only confined to the schools.
Mactar Seck, the UN Economic Commission for Africa technology chief, shared his continental insights about how unprepared Africa is for the challenges still to come. Education around cyber security, he said, is key to empower the youth with access to connectivity.
“Digital technology is still a very small percentage of GDP for African countries. We need to find a way to unlock that potential and define the new jobs and opportunities that we need, so that governments can have a clear investment picture.” – Mactar Seck
Access to the digital age
Sentech Africa Tech Week broke from the standard tech conference highfalutin, philosophical discussions when the conversation pivoted to consumer-facing solutions that impact daily life.
A panel that outlined the over-the-top (OTT) video streaming content landscape highlighted the importance of telling authentic African stories to keep the rich cultural heritage alive. There is also a need to have ownership of the content creation and distribution channels to ensure that those stories are conveyed truthfully.
This data will also help increase diversity in the generative AI training models and, ultimately benefit the continent.
IMS Ventures Chairman Lonwabo Sambula also touched on another area that affects South Africans directly: digitalisation in the taxi industry.
“The taxi industry is not looking for a digital solution, it is wanting to formalise the economy it exists in. Taxis operate for people who don’t have access to the formal economy.” – Lonwabo Sambula
His words underlined the need for local solutions to local problems that are sensitive to the circumstances they will be deployed in. The FairPay solution is approved by the taxi industry because it offers a solution for the taxi operators and drivers, as well as offering convenience for their customers and the entire taxi rank business ecosystem.
Africa Tech Week founder and event organiser, CEO Ralf Fletcher summed up the importance of dialogue at Sentech Africa Tech Week perfectly when he said that these forums help open supply chains and facilitate networking and communications.
“We saw our peers in the media get disrupted by technology and would’ve been left behind if we didn’t do something to help start-ups link together and not suffer the same fate.”
Sentech Africa Tech Week 2023 exposed many in the tech industry to both the high concepts driving the rapid change, as well as the day-to-day problems that find solutions through collaboration and communication.