I do not think that Africa should become the next Silicon Valley
by Marcelino Turati Gomez
That might seem like a tough first liner from someone working at the AfricanBerlin Network, as our work is to connect and develop entrepreneurship ecosystems but bear with me.
During the last decade, many governments have used the silicon valley style of innovation-based economic growth as a silver bullet. How often have we heard “we will turn *insert name of a country, city, or region* into the next silicon valley”? This phrase has become a staple among politicians that is often repeated as a mantra, usually as they would like to have their image attached to entrepreneurship and to those extraordinary young founders that went from 0 to Hero and got a Ferrari before their 30s.
Don’t get me wrong; I am convinced that innovation is how we can ensure economic and human welfare growth. Innovation-based growth is indeed a very powerful tool, but like any tool, it is only effective when used correctly. The rapid economic growth that comes from this “let’s make our silicon valley” more often than not will only help a small percentage of the population, the new “African Silicon Elites,” but at what cost? The main cost of this economic boom will undoubtedly only foster more inequality in the African continent. It will most surely drift away from developing egalitarian societies through economic prosperity and progress for all.
Globalization has changed how we do business; the digital world does not need a passport and does not care about the color of someone’s skin but only the potential of their ideas. This same globalization lets these startups work as rockets that could eventually lift off and move their operations elsewhere, leaving behind just a story of one that “made it.”
The key here is not to create an artificial ecosystem aimed at creating unicorns but rather to identify the strengths and opportunities in the current ecosystem and leverage them. This should be done in a way that seeks to develop entire clusters around the ecosystem stars, as these clusters will promote innovation and create inclusive local prosperity by creating jobs and a myriad of other startups.
The African Silicon Valley should only use the learnings from all the other “valleys” and focus on the growth of entire clusters or communities rather than just the creation and launch of unicorn rockets. These clusters are the fundamental and natural needed ecosystems developers; these clusters are the ones that will provide the “unicorns” with the solutions they need. This focus creates prosperity for those who remain as the cluster develops symbiosis players in the ecosystem and the Valley-type unicorns.
I believe in African entrepreneurs and innovation, but not in the creation of another Silicon Valley. Another Silicon Valley will mostly translate into more talent exiting the continent and more profound gaps between the ultra-rich and the everyday worker and entrepreneur. The African Silicon Valley will leave us with another bunch of success stories of people who share their stories in panels worldwide but eventually had to move their HQ and operations to San Francisco, Dubai, or Continental Europe. I guess we can already think of a few such cases and good for them, but why not take this opportunity and generate real inclusive growth for all.