If you want to become extremely wealthy over the next five years, and you have a rudimentary grasp of technology, here's a no-brainer: move to Africa. Seriously.
The internet is only now arriving, and - with a billion people
on the continent still mostly offline - there exists a
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build the next Zyngas, eBays and Groupons for a huge untapped
You need only to look at the map of huge broadband fibre-optic
cables currently being laid on both east and west coasts, from
Djibouti to Dakar, to understand how quickly and ambitiously an
entire continent is being connected. It's like being back in 1995
again, and realising there might just be a market for an online
bookshop or auction website.
Don't take my word for it: David Cameron is so keen to give British
entrepreneurs a foothold that he recently took a delegation of CEOs
to Nigeria and South Africa to highlight "one of the greatest
economic opportunities on the planet".
The trip - featuring the bosses of firms such as Barclays and
the Royal Mint, Vodafone and Virgin Atlantic - was hailed by
Downing Street as "an historic visit to a continent with a
trillion-dollar economy and the potential, according to the IMF, to
grow faster than Brazil over the next five years".
Much of that growth will come from startups that bring the
mobile internet to businesses and consumers who have until now been
offline. That's why Cameron's team invited along the British
founders of red-hot mobile-money business Monitise, a clever
text-messaging system called Frontline SMS - and your own Digital
Life columnist with his trusty notebook.
It was, admittedly, a surreal four-day schedule, taking in South
Sudan, Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa that, at the last moment,
was squeezed to just two days and two countries (well, there was
the small matter of a domestic phone-hacking crisis to distract the
prime minister's attention).
But it was long enough to get a sense of the extraordinary
opportunities - at a time when McKinsey and Ernst & Young are
forecasting that £92bn will flow into Africa by 2015, and that
consumer spending will reach £863bn by 2020. No wonder Helios
Investment Partners could recently raise a £550m fund specifically
targeting the continent.
So where could you make your own tech-based millions? A few
obvious markets are primed for explosive growth:
Mobile money: Who needs banks if you can use your mobile to send
and receive cash? More than a quarter of Kenya's GDP now passes
through a phone-to-phone network called M-Pesa and, in Uganda, MTN
Mobile Money has almost two million users.
As Cameron put it in a speech to Lagos Business School, "Today,
mobile banking systems mean we can cut out the middlemen and make a
direct impact on the lives of small farmers who can produce more
food, feed their families, sell more food at the market and in turn
purchase more seed."
E-commerce: You don't need a smart-phone, let alone a PC, to
shop online. The American startup SlimTrader runs a service called
MoBiashara, which lets African consumers shop by mobile on basic
phones. And there are more than half a billion of those in
Business directories: The British startup entrepreneur Stefan
Magdalinski - formerly of UpMyStreet and Moo.com - moved to Cape
Town a couple of years ago to run a bunch of firms for
international media group MIH, including a Kenyan business
directory, Mocality, that gave many companies their first online
presence. Why? Because he wanted to be where the action was.
Health: Not only do mobile phones turn into blood-pressure
monitors and ultrasound devices that can connect rural communities,
they can also detect counterfeit medicines: the startup mPedigree
works with pharmaceutical companies to let patients text codes on
packs of antimalarials to receive confirmation that they're
Leapfrog tech: If a tiny fraction of, say, Zimbabweans have
access to the "big" internet, then why not make the internet
accessible via SMS on their 2G phones? That's what Econet Wireless
Zimbabwe is offering its five million mobile phone subscribers,
turning their mobile handsets into virtual smartphones with
technology from ForgetMeNot Africa that turns e-mails and chats
into text messages.
Now insert your own big idea here, and book your air ticket.
Sure, Africa still faces huge hurdles - in South Africa, eleven
million people live below the poverty line, and almost six million
have HIV; in Nigeria, 110 million out of a population of 158
million live on less than £1 a day. But when one telco alone,
Bharti Airtel, recently announced £8bn in African revenue, you know
it's time to abandon our traditional assumptions.
As Cameron said in Lagos, "Which continent has six of the ten
fastest growing economies in the world? Africa is transforming in a
way no one thought possible 20 years ago... and suddenly a whole
new future seems within reach."
And why shouldn't you have a profitable role in that future?
David Rowan is editor of Wired magazine.