Despite the challenges on the African continent, many experts are optimistic that there are still numerous untapped opportunities on the continent. Gary Whitehill, an entrepreneur and driven philanthropist with a footprint in four continents, is one of such individuals with an unwavering hope. In this interview with Ugo Aliogo, he highlighted how Africa can maximise its potential by tapping into these numerous opportunities. Excerpts:
Why are you interested in Africa?
Right now there is a chaotic clash happening all around the world between out-dated 20th Century structures, policy, and thinking versus the unstoppable transformation that 21st Century reality has brought with it. In nations around the globe, die-hards are fighting to save elite, entitled traditional economies and power structures. Interestingly, even though Africa has many challenges, it does not have the problem of being stuck in the industrial mire of the past century. Unlike the Western world, Africa has a choice.
The next decade will define the African continent in unexpected ways. The train to widely distributed prosperity across Africa is just getting on the tracks, and it could become a bullet train going 300km an hour within a decade. Moreover, Africa is harbouring the most powerful force shaping its future- the destiny of demographics. By 2050, Africa will have over a billion people in the most productive phase of their lives. An entire generation of African men and women will have been raised in times of exponential growth. Their innate ingenuity around survival coupled with their creative energy and access to technology will dramatically alter Africa’s future.
My interest in Africa is simple: I believe in creating platforms that catapult people to greater opportunity, fulfillment and success. At 24 I built one of the largest global networks for entrepreneurs in the world, Entrepreneur Week, which has led me on the journey of executing 70+ public and private projects across five continents by age 33. As an experiential learner, not an ivory tower theorist like other futurists, I have immersed myself at the ground-level across the world, from Rio to Santiago, Kabul to Dubai, Manila to Dhaka, Belgrade to Madrid, and Accra to Kigali.
Leveraging this on-the-ground wisdom, my experience across Africa shows me it is ripe to become the ultimate innovation platform. I know for a fact that Africa is the continent of opportunity and it is at a tipping point. I also know for sure Africa is the future… right now! Too many people on the continent and especially throughout the world underestimate Africa’s emerging potential. The advent of rapid change will exponentially accelerate over these next few years. You will see for yourself: 30 years of progress will happen in Africa over the next five years.
With this in mind, it is rewarding for me to work side-by-side with passionate progressive leaders in companies, cities and nations across Africa, especially those who are not afraid of the impending tsunami of change, and who are ready to seize the momentum of the 21st Century instead of being crushed by it.
So much has been said about the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative. What is your take?
The “Africa Rising” narrative brings a limited scope. It’s like saying the future of this continent depends on an ability to bake a cake: to get it correct we need all the right ingredients together in the right way, and with a good mix, Africa magically rises. That kind of theoretical, data-centric thinking is perpetuated by the World Bank, the IMF, the UN and numerous other well-intention bodies. But frankly, that’s an unleavened mix which won’t stand the heat of an exponential and unpredictable 21st Century.
With the amount of latent creative energy on this continent, Africa should and will experiment in unique ways. Instead of looking back and drawing on a recipe from the 20th Century industrialisation cookbook, Africans must mix brand new ingredients together to become densely networked future-forward communities. While the rest of the world is pondering Africa’s rise through a Western lens, the young men and women across Africa will be cooking with rocket fuel, going far beyond traditional barriers and doing moonshots over conventional mindsets.
Now I do agree business leaders and policymakers still need to be empowered with the correct tools, paradigms, and platforms to become FutureReady for what the 21st Century has in store for Africa. The potential is undoubtedly here. But propelling ahead on rocket fuel will be dangerous, so it is important to launch from an adaptive and nimble platform. For this reason, in the time that Africa is taking off, there are three main challenges on the continent which have to be addressed: insidious government indifference, the non-operational but maturing business environment, and a vast lack of skilled workers.
The first obstacle for Africa’s impending future is that governments have got to stop their indifference. When I say stop the indifference, I mean stop their self-preservation mode. This behaviour has become ingrained in Africa, the mind-set that government is where money is being made. It’s an insidious mentality installed by the colonialists, where power and wealth were tied to bureaucratic control.
In postcolonial times, with no business infrastructure in place, government became the employer of note, and presidents became perpetual money-mongers. Africa suffers broadly from a lack of genuine efforts by its governments in power today to uplift their people from the poverty line. Instead, governments use infrastructure, education and food as weapons in a war to win votes that keep them in the seats that make them and their circle of cronies an ever-increasing fortune.
Let’s be clear about Africa’s future: business is what has to make money. It is in the discipline of business, and not in government or through government, that wealth should be made. Otherwise, as we’ve seen for the past 100 years, money-making through government retards the opportunity for innovation and value-add businesses to flourish. Policymakers need to understand that fostering prosperity through business opportunities is the only way enough wealth will be created across the continent in order for billions of people to live in a functional, inclusive and resilient environment.
The obstacle to business maturity is understanding how to build greater momentum in an evolving African business landscape. It’s imperative for Africa to drop the MBA-driven Western thinking that revolves around linear cause-and-effect strategic planning. Africa’s future has several paths: some are possible, a few are probable and many are desired. With the unbounded thinking that is often found on this continent, African businesses can shape those possibilities and desires into future probabilities. Instead of focusing on five-year plans and 10-year strategies, African companies need to be adapting their business models around agile scenarios that are responsive to the continent’s uncertainty and buoyed by its ever-present risk.
Unfortunately, today African countries are held victim by continued government trade policies which retard the opportunity to focus on innovation and developing new verticals with resulting high value-add exports. While policymakers pay lip service, the fact is these agreements being signed end up undermining the critical manufacturing base the continent needs to leapfrog its current reality. Unfortunately, because money is in politics, we see how governments remain indifferent to truly helping the business landscape to mature in healthy, sustainable, and inclusive ways.
Remember, Africans are building for future business needs; we don’t have to evolve the industrial platform. We need to seize innovation and technology – right now. Not surprisingly, Africa has already demonstrated its ability to create unique solutions for under-served opportunities. Just look at mobile communications and mobile banking on the continent – we won’t be building brick and mortar infrastructure when it’s not needed. Future Ready business maturity in Africa will evolve through businesses that fail fast and learn rapidly in an infrastructure-deprived but future fueled environment that’s boosted by the creative energies of tens of millions of Millennials, the world’s transformation generation.
This brings me to the third challenge. Africa is the youngest continent in the world. Demographics are actually our destiny – and demographics will deliver for Africa. The 1.1 billion populations will double within 35 years, and the continent will have almost 1 billion humans under the age of 18, and another billion in the productive workforce aged between 18 and 59. We already see that kind of opportunity emerging with 7 of the 10 fastest-growing economies residing in Africa.
I speak highly of Millennials as change drivers, but here in Africa, we still need to see more and more young people moving earlier and earlier from theoretical classrooms directly into hands-on business ventures. In the old-school paradigm, students spend a quarter of their entire life striving to attain paper qualifications that look pretty on a wall. Yet, what’s needed across Africa are people who learn by doing – those who think critically, who can adapt, and who are resilient. These are natural qualities in Millennials – thinking, questioning and challenging.
The Western-inspired education system is too parrot-style and is wholly irrelevant for the reality on the ground in Africa. I predict information technology will revolutionise education in Africa, and within the next five years young people will wake up to the fact that a paper education does not equal a job opportunity. This reality will force greater ingenuity and industriousness, compelling the education system to rapidly evolve. Africa needs questioners, critical thinkers, and sense makers. The people who will really succeed in the 21st Century across Africa are those who are experiential tinkerers, not the ivory tower educated elites.
What is the place of innovation in addressing Africa’s challenges?
You may not realise it, but Africa and the word “innovation” are synonymous. Across the continent, innovation is not just some cool fad for kids fed with a silver spoon like it is in America. Do not forget, Africa is the cradle of mankind. This is where life sparked. It’s where fighting for survival sharpened our senses and challenged our innate creativity. Even today, here in Nigeria, just as it is true in Ghana, Egypt, Tanzania or Zimbabwe: human ingenuity is often what ensures you stay alive.
Innovation in Africa now has a new impetus. Information technology can both extend reach and accelerate intent. Take this ever-increasing information technology, add Africa’s creative energy, and you’re going to see exponential impact. Why is Africa ripe for innovation? Because there’s such a deep hunger here; young Africans are ready for solutions that are sustainable, resilient and inclusive. You’re starting to hear these young voices get louder and louder across the continent. They want effective leadership, pushing for better opportunities and demanding accountable governance.
We’re seeing the emergence of shared values inspired by the promise of a brand new century. With the right vision for innovation and the right platforms for accelerating information technology, Africa can leverage its global late-comer advantage to unexpected heights. There is a massive wealth of scientific and technological information lying dormant across the world that can be easily imported and leveraged right now. Most of it can be found through remote keystrokes. In order to leapfrog current on-the-ground realities, emerging Millennials just need access to be able to put existing knowledge to constructive use.
Across Africa, young people are already shaping levels of access to create, innovate, and self-express. For instance, here in West Africa we’re seeing hands-on youth engagement programs such as the GhanaThink Foundation, visionary innovation community projects such as SiliconAccra, and emboldened social media movements such as the backlash against President Buhari’s #ChangeBeginsWithMe campaign. My job as a futurist is to motivate the courageous visionaries to build properly developed innovation capacity for their companies, cities and regions in order to ensure Africa achieves sustainability, resilience and inclusiveness – at a faster rate.
What do you think of African innovations?
As we launch ourselves into the early decades of a new century we have this unwritten, undeclared credo pushing us forward – believing that we’re standing at the edge of a “smart” future. People think we’re deploying “smart” processes and systems. But this picture is false. It’s only a half-truth at best, and it is giving us a wrong sense of security about the 21st Century. Do you know what is really happening today? Tapping away on phones gives all of us a fake sense of distance and connectness. We’re together, yet we have never been more on our own. We are creating cities and communities held together by infrastructure and smartphones, but in the process we are losing out on the very energy that drives all of our creative endeavors: human ingenuity.
This is what makes African innovators different. Sure, you’re seeing kids on corners getting sucked into smartphone virtual life. But that same kid goes home to a house crowded with three generations of family and extended family. That kid sees filthy open gutters and people around him suffering and struggling to survive.
That kid’s creativity is not bounded in its thinking. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is dealing with limited enthusiasm, steered forward by deeply entrenched grey-haired imperialist middlemen, which results in incremental innovation gains. Africa has an infinite number of triggers for spurring creativity because necessity is the ultimate mother of invention. Take this on-the-ground fact, place it onto a blank canvas with unlimited possibility, and Africans can paint whatever future reality they want for their continent.
But, and this is a big “but,” to capitalise on innovation across the continent over this next decade, young Africans have to agitate for better leadership in business and throughout government. They have to use their votes and their voices now to create the kind of leadership Africa needs for the 21st Century. Innovation thrives when leaders realise they serve the people, not when it’s stifled by today’s oppressive reality in some African countries; where the people are still serving those few elites in power.
Instead of pushing for a hierarchical control agenda in rigidly structured environments, future-forward African leaders will value openness and drive opportunity for their people. In the end, leadership is about justice, and justice is born from transparency, which only happens when all of us know we are included. The days of perpetual presidents are numbered as young people across Africa find their voice and embrace dissent as a way to bring change for a better future.
Structural innovation, whether it’s the African Union, the president of an African country, the governor of a state, or the CEO of a multi-billion dollar African company; they all need to understand that there are structural innovation forces that will unlock Africa’s opportunities in the 21st Century. In its base form, structural innovation is a cumulative sum, where first you capture creative energy and then you shape it with technology. Combined, these two forces generate new shared values, and these values become the cultural force which drives the kind of human ingenuity that creates solutions and opportunities where more people benefit, more of the time.
Structural innovation happens when people come together. What I am talking about is Africa’s ability to create forward momentum by leveraging that Ubuntu spirit among people that encourages collaboration, collective contributions and co-creation. Second, structural innovation occurs when there’s planned technology, and where technology solutions accelerate the intent we collectively express. There are great examples of how technology is redefining Africa’s geographic and resource limitations – but as we’re seeing drones delivering blood supplies to rural villages, we have to ensure we’re planning and not regulating creativity out of existence.
Structural innovation occurs when the forces of directed innovation, accessible information technology and shared values are brought together with people at the center. Only then will we witness a more inclusive and just Africa that can succeed in rewriting the cyclical poverty-war-disease narrative. Ensuring a fulfilling life of prosperity for all Africans is the goal, not simply eradicating a Western metric called “poverty.”
Structural innovation isn’t inherited or imported. Africa needs leaders who have the courage to discuss the irrelevance of the manufactured borders left in place by the colonialists. Leaders who will cut the “insert well-intentioned world organisation here” strings that pull us away from structural innovation. The future of Africa lies in resilient, adaptable, and cooperative region-states and mega-city-communities, not unyielding Western-inspired nation-states with arbitrary lines and strings attached sponsors.
Regarding cities and states, mayors and governors need to understand how to develop inclusive innovation communities which accelerate opportunities for collaboration and creativity, instead of suppressing it.
Structural innovation means investing in infrastructure to allow the supply market to develop. Africa will move towards more functional economies as we see an increase in informed, empowered, and prosperous consumers who seek durable products and services which meet their unique needs. Structural innovation needs governance that supports and drives economic opportunity for all, with tangible incentives focused on strengthening the value-add manufacturing sector. Structural innovation also includes implementing measures that result in more collaborative financing instruments which focus on working hand-in-hand with the local communities from which they operate.
Regarding business, CEOs need to understand the five core future trends that will catapult business growth in the 21st Century. First, there’s the devolution of power, where businesses need to move away from silo structures and control hierarchies. In their place, they need to create collaborative innovation hubs. These hubs thrive on the second trend, which sees the evolution of networks over systems.
More simply stated, systems are closed, while networks are open and a more fluid environment for structural innovation.
People dynamics are also transforming the prospects of business across Africa, demonstrated by the significant rise in communities with shared values, and modern-day digital tribes formed around networks of trust. Lastly, business leaders must understand how structural innovation seizes the emergent opportunities of a borderless world for doing business in the 21st Century. Equally important, Africa needs to escape the ongoing structural violence of “create, loot and share” mindsets, which continue to impair the ability of every single one of the 54 countries on this continent to meet basic fundamental human needs.