Interview: Africa 1.0

Rebecca Enonchong, daughter of a village chief in Cameroon and educated in the United States, co-founded the Washington D.C.-based Africa Technology Forum to promote technology in Africa and to foster the networking and growth of African technology professionals.

Enonchong, 33, who is also president of Application Technologies Inc., a Bethesda, Md.-based global application service provider, recently spoke with Computerworld reporter Kathleen Melymuka about the many challenges and opportunities of doing business in Africa.

Why should U.S. companies want to do business in Africa?

Look at what’s happening in the U.S. economy: The market is shrinking. Africa has new, untapped markets. A lot of formerly government-owned enterprises are being privatized. Economies in Africa are growing at a rate much more rapid than in the West. They have a greater gap and greater need than in the West. There are great opportunities for any company offering goods and services.

Is there a digital divide within Africa?

There is. Countries in southern Africa like South Africa, Botswana Zimbabwe are more advanced. Then you have the northern African countries that are also more advanced. In the middle what would be considered black Africa you’ve got this huge gap, and that’s the area of greatest opportunity, because American companies neglect it in general.

What kind of infrastructure challenges is there? What about electricity?

It’s not everywhere. Even larger cities with millions of people may have entire neighborhoods without electricity. When you have it, it’s really expensive, and, frequently, electricity will just go off for a couple days. So you always have to think about what kind of power generator you have and do you really want to use it for computers or do you need it for.

Those are the kinds of challenges Africans face daily. It becomes part of your psyche, so it’s a challenge but not an obstacle that can’t be overcome. When we think about doing projects in Africa, we have to think about that and how we’re going to deal with it and then just deal with it.

Talk about some of the challenges of deploying technology in Africa. Lack of landlines is very tough to deal with. Getting a phone line in some countries takes over a year, so dial-up isn’t necessarily an option. Most use VSAT technology, and in some countries, that’s illegal, and in others, they could make it illegal any day, so even if you have VSAT, you don’t want anyone to know.

Some companies will put on the backside of the building so the government officials won’t see it. And that’s very scary. Some companies have built their business around this technology and they don’t know if it’s going to last till next year. How do you get investors in a company that the government could shut down tomorrow?

What are some of the political challenges?

On paper, some countries seem to be encouraging the growth of technology. For instance, Nigeria has a whole ministry for science and technology that’s brand new. But our is from Nigeria, and he laughs and says it looks good on paper but the reality is that it’s still filtering through and it will take some time. But it’s a move in the right direction.

Then there are other countries I won’t name. In one, the main landline phone company was being privatized, and a South African company wanted to purchase the formerly government-owned, but the holdup was that one of the government ministers wanted US$100 million for himself. That stopped the deal for a long time. Finally, it went through, but those are the types of things that happen.

About six years ago, when the Internet was becoming big, the minister of communications of one country said that over his dead body would his country have the Internet. He’s still alive and he’s still a minister in that country and the Internet exists. It comes from the population and you can’t stop a revolution.