Lessons from Africa’s innovation history

It’s not as old as the Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the continent’s journey to digital innovation holds lessons for today. The bad news is that we’ve mostly not cared.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of recent memory and lose the context and lessons from where we started. Africa’s digital ecosystem is often discussed as something recent and from the past five years. And any conversation that goes 10 or 12 years into the past equals ancient history

Some of this is understandable. A lot has changed, and a lot more is changing every passing hour as the continent’s digital reality becomes a separate and fully dynamic force of its own.

At the same time, nothing much has changed. A lot of the conditions that predated the digital revolution, as it is called, still exist or have become worse in some cases. In other cases, the problems have transformed into subtle and not-so-subtle bottlenecks on the road to digital prosperity. In a digital ecosystem defined by high-growth mobile app startups and Silicon-Valleynomics, the missing context of how we got here is already exacting a huge price.

If there is anything Africa’s current crop of founders, operators, and entrepreneurs need today, it is conversation, stories and lessons from how the continent’s digital economy got the ball rolling.


Nothing is new under the sun, the good book says, or to quote extensively from Russell Southwood’s new book, Africa 2.0: Inside a continent’s digital revolution:

The first cohort of sub-Saharan African start-ups appeared in the 1990s: in 1995 South African Mark Shuttleworth founded Thawte Consulting, which specialised in digital certificates and internet security: four years later, in 1999, he sold the company to Verisign for US$575 million. In 1998 the US-based Africa Online, which is arguably the ‘Africa start-up zero’ outside of South Africa, relocated to Kenya. The arrival of Mark Davies’s Busy Internet in Ghana in 2001 (see Chapter 2) spurred the creation of a whole community of first-wave start-ups.15 In the same year the G8 Dot Force Initiative set up Enablis to help entrepreneurs in Kenya and South Africa. As already outlined in…