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Africa should learn from Silicon Valley

The story of the beginnings of Silicon Valley and its transition to where it is today is an example of how what seemed like adversity was transformed into something that has become a major driver of a country’s economy.

eBay's head office in Silicon Valley.

eBay's head office in Silicon Valley.

The area known as Silicon Valley in the US is located in the San Francisco Bay Area of northern California. Silicon Valley is a child of circumstance. A cash-strapped Stanford University decided to lease a portion of its land to high-tech companies whose work would be deemed beneficial to the university, as a means of raising money without having to sell any of the land.

In 1953, the first lessee, Varian Associates, moved into the first building in the now-designated Stanford Industrial Park. Companies like General Electric, Eastman Kodak, Hewlett-Packard and several others later followed.

Today, Silicon Valley is the technological hub of the US and indeed the world, as virtually all the products designed and produced by companies in this area are used globally.

Silicon Valley’s impact in our world has been enormous. You are reading this piece on a computer or a mobile device, using the internet platform on a website that has been created with software. Everything that enables you to read this post is a product of a company in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is home to hundreds of thousands of well-paid employees, creating products and innovations that provide employment to many more. The multiplier spread is immeasurable. Many of the world’s billionaires, who arose from Silicon Valley, are funding foundations that research cures for diseases and are actively providing financial help for sufferers of others.

Even everyday people, who have never had any dealings with companies in Silicon Valley, have made money trading in the shares of these companies. Yours truly is one of them.

In addition to doing all that I have mentioned above, the concept of Silicon Valley has inspired other countries to start technological parks and villages, mimicking the Silicon Valley concept. The question is, how can Africa learn from Silicon Valley, and how can Africa grow its technology industries according to the Silicon Valley concept?

In many African countries, we have companies which are operating in size and scope of operations that are comparable to the Silicon Valley companies. However, many of these companies were started off with the sole aim of generating money for the owners and shareholders. The side of the coin which is yet to manifest is the value-added aspect. To what purposes, aside from income-generation for the company owners, have these companies gone to actually add value to the lives of Africans? What identifiable legacies have these companies left behind?

Another aspect is the issue of governments being able to synchronise resources and policies to articulate proper science and technology-driven projects similar to Silicon Valley. Well-to-do private individuals and power brokers in Africa have also not done enough to promote science and technology on the continent. Efforts at this have been non-committal and only done to serve the ambitions and interests of the select few at the top. African universities are not adequately empowered to develop industrial parks like Stanford did. Government-owned universities are grossly underfunded and private universities are more inclined towards profit generation.

If we are to really see a Silicon Valley-type transformation in Africa, there has to be more public-private partnerships and more collaboration between all stakeholders in the technology sector in properly articulating policy in this regard.

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons that Africa can learn from Silicon Valley is that it is possible for a country to take its destiny in its own hands, and build from what it has to where it wants to get to, without continuously sourcing for help from international organisations like the IMF and aid agencies. Experience has shown that the interests of these groups may not necessarily be in the same interest of African countries.

It is time for Africa to decide to impact the world. It will indeed be a great day to see the technological products of an African company being used widely in the US or in Europe.

Mawuna Koutonin is the founder of Goodbuzz and SiliconAfrica.com. He is a father working hard to provide food and smiles to his family. This article first appeared on SiliconAfrica.com

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  • Paul

    This post is great inspiration for Africa tech developments.

    My sole detraction is that it perpetuates the Silicon Valley myth. That mobile device in your hands may have had its storage media developed in Boston, its display in Upstate New York, where innovative research was performed to help develop fiber optics, and its circuitry developed in Texas. This doesn’t begin to account for contributions by non-US companies such as that of the Asian assemblers and their logistics systems.

    The US military has also funded a great deal of those innovations, not least is the creation of the internet. Silicon Valley is great at what it does—tech and marketing—as exemplified by Apple.

    Numerous countries for decades have studied and tried to recreate Silicon Valley and its hard to find one success.

    I see, read and hear too many business plans from African entrepreneurs emulating whatever was hot yesterday or is hot today in the Valley. There are instead numerous problems and potential solutions being overlooked that Africans face that the Valley does not. Worse many exhibit a subtle inferiority complex in praising the Valley and, indirectly, its marketing machine. Note that Microsoft and Amazon are both not founded nor based in the Valley.

    Africa and elsewhere can learn much from Silicon Valley. Let’s just not get carried away with it and its marketing machine. There’s much Africa can contribute to Africa and the world as M-Pesa and others have demonstrated without the Valley. As noted, Silicon Valley was a creation of circumstances; Africa’s tech innovations will likely be as well, with or without the Valley.

    Interested in hear your thoughts.

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