Lessons Gleaned from Attending and Speaking at the World Economic Forum for Africa 2019 Gathering

Last year in September, Hepta Analytics was amongst the few startup companies invited to participate in the World Economic Forum for Africa in Cape Town, South Africa. Such a rare opportunity for a young company like ours given the high profile individuals, such as heads of states invited to attend these types of events. It also included a great mix of local, regional and international companies execs, academic and civil society leaders, all coming together to discuss one thing:  Shaping inclusive growth and shared futures in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Even though it has taken a while to write this reflective piece, I have been pondering on what to present it as, on the outcomes of that event where I represented Hepta Analytics in full capacity as an attendee and speaker.

The major topic of the panel discussion I was slotted  was tackling the role of Artificial intelligence and its contribution to the global economy as predicted to reach almost $16 trillion by 2030, and how Africans can seize the opportunity of utilizing it to improve their well being. The link to the conversation can be found below.

Link on the WEF page

or DW news website below

I was also able to ask a panel of a few African presidents later on at the plenary session on their investment strategy in the space technology sector in the African Continent.

Question captured below :

Space technology, while capital intensive is becoming increasingly important to countries truly leapfrogging and realizing new economic dividends. How can we as young people help our countries and governments also compete in the global space race without losing focus on the more immediate challenges that our countries face, such as food insecurity.

Here are the outcomes and lessons learnt during and after the conference

The text will be organized in terms of concerns and issues and then outlining potential solutions to those problems.  It feels literally effective to not only point out issues, but to also provide suggestions for potential solutions. I am looking forward to your comments and potential challenges shared and solutions for those in this field as well.

Based on discussions held during the event by various organizations from the African continent, both multinational and local, it was very evident that their major cry was the “lack of data science and other kinds of technology infrastructure” experts in the African continent.

According to most individuals I spoke to, their go to strategy was outsourcing this expertise outside of the African continent. Their excuse or as everyone says it “We are reducing our overheads such as spending tons of dollars in resources, training experts in-house”. However, this same individuals forgot how risky and careless that sounded, given the potential  cybersecurity risks you might introduce to your systems when outsourcing critical infrastructure work or software that for example monitors traffic  from sensitive sources such, as financial data and any activities that breaching your system would mean the end of your business.

In addition to that, you risk losing your intellectual property due to lack of very solid legal structures missing in the African continent on intellectual property.

But this is beside the point because I might be preaching to an already converted crowd, that has water tight systems for the mentioned issues. But stay with me here.

What is plaguing the Technology and Engineering industry in the African continent is issues  running the gamut from having individuals masquerading as experts in various fields, operating  and not delivering the level of quality they front as offering to their clients;  not having systems in place facilitating enough and quality  post high school training, leading to what they call half baked graduates ; lack of well-paying opportunities for individuals who have actually studied this disciplines, but later drop out to pursue whatever venture that pays them well; underpaid college professors that don’t deliver  training to students to the level of quality needed by industry etc. There are several angles that can be investigated but we obviously don’t just want to blame the system. However, as most of us might be aware, these issues have led to diminished faith, especially for genuine and legit experts in the African continent. This becomes exacerbated  even further by the anecdotes and rhetoric that continuously keeps getting fronted about that.

Furthermore, this has led to some governments across the african continent hiring “experts” outside of the African continent, flying them in to fix the issues on the ground. A process that incurs a hefty price in terms of tax payers money as well as missed opportunity on betting on companies like Hepta analytics and various technology companies across the continent, offering quality work and  capable in all realms to offer solutions that fit the local or regional context.

We also can’t forget the issue of lack of self-education for organizations seeking these kinds of technological expertise. There is some sort of entitlement that comes with wanting to be educated on how these technologies such as machine learning, cloud computing and geospatial technologies can contribute towards  improving your work flows, while being adamant to pay for the services offered. Basically wanting free consultancy from a local firm and using their information to hire a “more tactical team abroad.”

This puts most young local firms at crossroads. As much as young technology companies have to give some level of their information away  in exchange of a contract for early days, it becomes burdensome  when then this becomes an expectation, even more so when you truly have and believe that you have a highly trained  and talented team to deliver quality work above and beyond.  These moments or times make you learn early on and very quickly, how to avoid time suckers, by turning down some contracts no matter how painful that might feel.  This also includes individuals peddling donation money to just have a piece of software that is just going to sit in their vault and not making the required impact.  Yup, we have been there done that. It is part of the #Heptaway on making sure our integrity is water tight as an organization.

Possible solution

Collectively, these issues don’t have any straight jacket answer to them. Every company and individual in the African continent in the heavily specialized fields, has to analyze fully what they are worth in terms of compensation for their work.

However, Compensation becomes such a thorny issue especially when people minimize what you are worth based on your setting and throwing phrases around like “surely, you are in the African continent, you can’t be that expensive!”. Maybe we should collectively, as technology and Engineering experts decide then on what minimum we cannot go beyond when charging for service and product delivery. This would then enable provisions on setting standards beyond which, one should not accept as compensation, as an employer or employee for the industries sake. This would however be a whole other discussion and debate that would lead to nitpicking and various other ugly anecdotes.

On the other hand, the issue of individuals continuously peddling the lack of expertise in the African continent would probably be answered by only one question. “Why are all these individuals doing a very poor job in headhunting for the talent in the African continent?”. Is it the fact that the top quality talent refuses to be paid meagerly resulting to such conclusions, portraying  a whole continent of 54 countries of not having Engineering and technology talent?.  Such careless phrases and the enablers that is us, is causing more harm than good. Maybe it is time we looked inward and investigate what we internalize as truth.

There is also fundamentally a need, for more technology companies and experts in the African continent, embracing the act of speaking ,writing and owning their success stories and how good they are in what they do and how whatever they do, adds value to whatever work flows, organizations in the African continent are focused on optimizing. Do it with your chest Na! If you are good in your craft, own that with pride. That might change the game for those who come after you.  Say that to the world and mountain tops :).

Clearly,  humility certainly doesn’t pay bills but on the other hand, be proud backed with facts and real quality work. That is just how capitalism is set up and those who make a lot of noise sometimes are purported to be the experts in what they do even when it might not be true.

To conclude, African governments need to start investing in their own citizens and giving them opportunities before seeking that outside their countries or even the African continent in general. There are several other political tropes that come with this topic but the main message today is to give opportunities to local entrepreneurs and experts.

There are obviously a lot more that could be analyzed and discussed from the various pointers mentioned, but today we keep it short and simple. Looking forward to your thoughts on this. #askhepta #heptaAnalytics #machinelearning  #DataScience  #cloudinfrastructure #geospatialTechnologies

To access the report on the entire event on the WEF19 Africa, follow this link