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Nearly 100 women in Tanzania learned computer skills to start businesses in a week-long workshop. Photo courtesy of African Technology Foundation

How the emerging tech hubs of Africa are getting connected to Silicon Valley

Africa is not a monolith with one person in charge, Stephen Ozoigo, CEO of African Technology Foundation, likes to remind audiences. “It’s 55 countries with 55 policies, over 3,000 languages. There’s a case to be made for some investments to even happen at a city level and not even at a country level,” he said.

His nonprofit, African Technology Foundation based in Palo Alto, California, has been working since 2014 to connect African technologies with the expertise of Silicon Valley, and to show the world what the continent of young, technology-minded entrepreneurs can do.

“The Africa I know and I represent is one where youth, technology, entrepreneurship and innovation will thrive,” said Ozoigo. He was born in Nigeria, “so my African roots are strong.”

Because of his background, investors began calling on him to advise them about Africa and its people’s experience with technology. With high unemployment, a large youth population, and, as Ozoigo put it, “not-so-structured institutions,” Africa is prime for increasing entrepreneurship.

So he set up an organization in 2013 to link the startups in Africa with funders and expertise in the United States, and to monitor industry developments at large technology companies like Google to feed information back to the budding entrepreneurs.

African Technology Foundation now has 12 staff members and taps the African diaspora to do its part to demystify Africa and promote it not only as a potential market — and it is a growing market with more than 700 million smartphone connections expected by 2020 — but as a source of innovation.

“Africa is becoming less violent, less volatile and less politically constrained. Africa is participating in globalization, so the policies of the future should be written with Africa in mind at the country, institutional and corporate levels,” Ozoigo said.

The main reason why some Silicon Valley investment firms don’t invest in Africa is because their funds weren’t designed with Africa in mind, he said. So his team keeps track of which companies are creating new investment funds and works to educate them on the opportunities in Africa.

The startups in Africa also must do their homework, Ozoigo continued. “It’s not just the idea but how you’ll take it to fruition.” What kind of team and funding do they have? Do they understand the legal process and have they worked out contracts with their partners? And are they developing technologies that would be locally relevant, he said.

For example, Bayo Balogun of Lagos, Nigeria, started a website called Car Parts Nigeria, which allows users to make price comparisons for car parts, after his own experience getting wildly different estimates.

African Technology Foundation also works on gender empowerment, such as an October 2015 project with Sweden-based Help to Help. Along with local organizers, they hosted a week-long “boot camp” for 94 women in Tanzania, teaching them basic computer skills to run a business.

In a more recent project, funded by the U.S. State Department, the African Technology Foundation helped bring 50 female scientists and engineers from around the world to the United States to tell their stories in an upcoming documentary called “Hidden No More.” It was inspired by the movie “Hidden Figures” about the unsung female mathematicians who were integral in NASA’s early space program.

“Each of these women is a rock star in their own domain — we’re talking professors of science and ministers of technology, said Ozoigo. But just like the movie, they were unknown” because they live in places where their work wasn’t as celebrated or they faced gender discrimination.

Bringing them together facilitated practical connections, such as helping young women find a scholarship or a job as a research assistant, he said, but it also provided role models for the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.

View more stories about people working to make a difference in our Agents for Change series.

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