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Education, small businesses miss out on Africa’s premier tech festival

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Picture: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters Jeremiah Murimi, a Kenyan electrical engineering student demonstrates how a smart charger connected to a bicycle powers a mobile phone at the University of Nairobi.

By Edwin Naidu

Education and the use of technology to promote small to medium business enterprises throughout the Continent are among the buzzwords at the Africa Tech Festival, which ended in Cape Town on Friday. But school children and small to medium business entrepreneurs were missing at AfricaCom, the Continent’s largest technology conference.

This was a pity as the Continent’s premier tech gathering, which attracted some 25,000 delegates over the week, heard about how technology would lift Africa out of poverty and shift the narrative on the Continent.

As 5G rolls out throughout Africa, the first such gathering since the pandemic in two years saw adults and bigwigs made up of politicians, government officials, manufacturers, mobile operators and techies wax lyrical about its benefits. In one of the sessions attended by at least 500 people, one of the speakers asked how many small businesses were in the room. Only one hand went up.

One hopes, however, that schoolchildren and small business operators still get the message about the wonders of a more inclusive digital Africa. The plethora of inspiring speakers or announcements of the discovery of new tech and telecoms innovation spoke to how much these new fads can make a difference. Yet, the most practical action concerning a few nations on the continent did not come from the geeks who assembled 40 or so of them to take part in a five-kilometre fun run ahead of the Indaba.

It came from South African politicians, who signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between South Africa and the Republic of Cȏte d Ivoire on co-operation in the field of sport and physical education. This was confirmed in a virtual briefing by the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC) earlier this month; the agreement was signed in South Africa on July 22.

The MoU came as an initiative to develop formal bilateral relations in sport that will deepen co-operation and strengthen the bond of solidarity between the two countries. In the same meeting, it emerged that technology would play a key role as South Africa and Nigeria have agreed on an audio-visual co- production signed in Abuja, Nigeria, in December last year to consolidate, broaden and strengthen the friendly ties and mutual understanding between the two countries by working towards co-producing films, documentaries and other related audio-visual material.

Given the xenophobic behaviour commonplace in South Africa, it was most welcome that sports, arts and culture were being used to promote peace in other African countries engaged in conflict. These agreements will benefit the South African economy, culture, arts and sport. The DSAC sent two school football teams to the African Schools Football Championship in Malawi from October 30 to November 1. Both the boys’ and girls’ teams won. Unfortunately, the achievements did not attract the same attention as Banyana Banyana after winning the Women’s Africa Cup of Nation (WAFCON) title on July 23, 2022. It was not in the same league, but it seems a missed opportunity to celebrate our emerging sports stars proudly.

Meshack Mbowane, chief director of international relations, DSAC, said that the MoU between South Africa and Cȏte d’Ivoire aimed to develop formal bilateral relations in sport, deepen co-operation and strengthen the bond of solidarity between the countries.

Ruphus Matibe, director of international relations, DSAC, said that the agreement between South Africa and Nigeria would enable both countries to celebrate and exchange knowledge and skills in the broader areas of arts and culture and to tell their own stories.

One way to do so is using technology, but while a necessity, tech is not necessarily the answer to the challenges on the continent. Practical uses of it are vital for it to become a reality. The educational aspect seemed to be missing at the Africa Tech Festival, but the positives for the Continent were plenty for all to see.

One of the leading figures, Mohamed Madkour, VP of Global Carrier Network Solutions Marketing, Huawei HQ, led a roundtable in which he underlined the importance of 4G, which will continue to be essential for Africa’s digital and economic development, even as the Continent embraces 5G at an ever-greater scale.

With the world adopting 5G rapidly, it offers advantages in terms of speed, cost, and power efficiency.

He believes that one of the critical lessons that the Continent can learn from the rest of the world is that having a strong 4G network makes rolling out 5G simpler. That focus on continued 4G growth, Madkour added, is significant when you remember that half of all households on the Continent are either unconnected or under-connected. With fibre rollout a challenge in many countries, solutions such as fixed wireless access present an essential opportunity for connecting those households.

He adds that the Covid-19 pandemic has underlined how critical it is to have that kind of fast, affordable connectivity in the home. A few years ago, home connectivity may have been necessary for entertainment, after-hours work, or research for school assignments. Today, it focuses on everything from careers to small businesses and education. With millions of households across Sub-Saharan Africa able to afford broadband connectivity but remain unconnected, there is a massive market opportunity.

But the cost of devices in the consumer sector must become affordable as currently, the penetration of 5G devices in Africa is low,” he said.

Looking forward, Madkour believes that there will be advancements leading up to the launch of 6G. But for now, he says, “everybody’s taking it to step by step”.

On the plus side, Huawei is preparing to train 100,000 digital champions to support small and medium-sized enterprises in Africa over the next three years. Leo Chen, President of Huawei Sub-Saharan Africa Region, delivered a presentation entitled “Lighting up the Future with Nonstop Innovation”.

He outlined Huawei’s latest ICT development concepts and successful digital transformation solutions in it.

Huawei, which has 180,000 employees, and operates in more than 170 countries, knows about growing economies and creating jobs; they certainly have a track record.

To this end, Huawei has set up four innovation centres in Africa, has launched several plans to support the development of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and will train 100,000 digital champions in Africa over the next three years. “The high resilience and rapid growth of the Continent’s digital economy, technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence, and cloud are evolving rapidly, and the adoption of ICT in a wide range of industries is growing,” Chen said. “They support Africa in advancing the technical revolution, boosting productivity and increasing jobs.”

But currently, the biggest challenge facing Africa remains access to the internet, with only 40 percent of the population on the continent accessing it. Of that, 60 percent are doing so via their phones. Many throughout Africa need to start using the internet to research for their school work or university studies, and small to medium entrepreneurs are oblivious to its potential.

IP (Internet Protocol) is the protocol that governs communications on the Internet. Each device (computer, smartphone, tablet, and more) needs a unique identifier to connect and communicate.

This identifier is called the IP Address. Currently, there are two versions of IP: IPv4 and IPv6.

The Africa IPv6 Development White Paper was launched at the conference by the African Union, Huawei and the African Telecommunications Union. It was clear that the Continent could not afford to be left behind.

According to the International Finance Corporation, the paper estimates that improving internet access to 75 percent of African citizens could create 44 million jobs.

The adoption rate of IPv6 in Africa is only 5 percent compared to other continents, which is lower than the global average. The message is clear: governments on the Continent need to speed up the transition from the previous IPv4, which is coming to the end of its lifespan and was created in the eighties to handle only 4.3 billion addresses on the internet. The new protocol IPv6 would be able to connect all 8 billion people on the planet with the ability to connect 50 billion more people in the future. France, the US, China, India, Kenya and Nigeria currently lead the way in migrating to the new protocols. The majority of countries on the African continent could be left behind, like the school kids and small business entrepreneurs at the tech fest, if we don’t get up to speed soon enough.

Naidu is a journalist and communications expert. He also heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up committed to stimulating dialogue and raising awareness around education and the socio-economic, environmental, and political factors it influences in South Africa and the African Continent.

This article was exclusively written for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.