Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Into Africa - by Wired Magazine

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 local market.

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 Africa.

Business directories: The British startup entrepreneur Stefan Magdalinski - formerly of UpMyStreet and - 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 genuine.

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.