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Breakout Session: From Silicon Valley to Sub-Saharan Africa: Innovations Shaping the World

By Emilio Martinez de Velasco Aguirre

Rob Meloche, Opportunity’s VP of marketing and communications, got the afternoon breakout session started by asking the members in the panel to place the conversation about innovation and technology in the context of the developing world. Each of the members in the panel contributed interesting reflections.

Here are the highlights:

Breakout session panel for 'From Silicon Valley to Sub-Saharan Africa.'Steven Levy, senior writer of Wired magazine and author of “In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives,” talked about the importance of getting into the mindset of people in the developing world. This is important not only to come up with innovations for the developing world, but also to turn insights from the developing world into innovations for the rest of the world. He exemplified this idea by sharing an experience from a trip to Africa, where he and a group of Googlers had a cultural clash when interacting with a group of computer science majors. They had an eye-opening moment when they realized that mobile phones were not going to be used in the same way than they were being used in the developed world. Given the illiteracy rates in Africa, the use of voice in mobile phones has a lot of potential. “Getting to the core of how humans interact with technology will give an edge to technologies in other environments,” Steven said, “as it will make them much more intuitive.”

For Bill Draper, general partner at Draper Richards LP, and author of “The Startup Game: Inside the Partnership Between Venture Capitalists and Entrepreneurs,” we need to think of ideas that matter a lot around the world. Twitter, for instance, has had a great impact across both the developed and the developing world. And he encouraged the audience to think of innovation in a broader sense. Many organizational innovations, even when they might not involve a lot of technology, can have a great impact. As an example, he talked about a recent effort to bring better health services across Africa by providing medicines and other health supplies to Avon ladies, who are already visiting houses door-to-door.

Ben Chelf, co-founder and chief technology officer of Coverity, emphasized that innovations result from socioeconomic conditions, the larger socioeconomic infrastructure, as much as from the technology itself. For instance, in the developed world we take ATMs for granted. But in Africa where an ATM infrastructure doesn’t exist, a big challenge is how to make payments. The specific socioeconomic conditions create many opportunities for innovation.

For Aleksandr-Alain Kalanda, CEO of Opportunity Malawi, the biggest question is how to solve the problems of lower-income people in a sustainable way. They have addressed that question by thinking of ways to leverage the technology around them. For instance, they have been looking at how simple and inexpensive cell phones can be used to make bank transactions. “People in Africa don’t have access to computers or smart phones.” So they developed a framework that uses basic and affordable cell phones to enable cell phone banking, in partnerships with software developing companies and other strategic partners. They were the first ones to deliver that platform, and now other organizations are using it.

Aleksandr talked about another case, the use of points of sale for banking. They have been looking at shops that have a point of sale as an outlet for bank transactions. His team has been in conversations with central banks and adapting points of sales at shops to enable customers make the same transactions at a point of sale than they would do in an ATM.

Rob Meloche then asked the panel to reflect on one of Steve Jobs’ greatest teachings: making technology really simple to use.

Bill Draper then turned to what he considers the heartbeat for development: education. “If we don’t work on that problem in the developing world, we are just forgetting about the real essence of development,” Bill said. One innovative idea that hasn’t developed too well is using the Internet to extend the arm of great educators, the ability for someone in Malawi or Rwanda to listen to a great professor at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford or any great University.

Steven Levy talked about an idea introduced by Steve Jobs: not releasing a technology until it was ready to be used, until the infrastructure and the mindset were in place. According to Steven Levy, Steve Jobs showed us “how to make the impossible from a realistic base,” understanding what our situation is at a given moment, and moving forward from there.

Ben Chelf then talked about the importance of critical thinking. Based on his experience traveling in Rwanda, he talked about the importance of not just solving specific technologies, but addressing problems at a more larger, strategic level. “We need to educate on critical thinking skills to solve problems.”

Rob Meloche then asked the panel to reflect on a related topic: How to create a culture of sharing and collaboration on banking.

Bill Draper talked about the importance of person-to-person communication. “Internet communication, tweeting, is not the whole answer.” He reminded us that in Africa much communication takes place in coffee shops, a great place for sharing ideas and do networking. Aleksandr built on Bill’s comment by talking about the importance of networking. “It is important to find the right person to get something done.”

Steven Levy took a more cautious stance on networking and sharing. While he agreed that there are a lot of places in the developing world where people get to communicate and can foster collaboration, the culture of entrepreneurship might be missing. He talked about an experience in Bagdad where he and a group of entrepreneurs were invited to discuss ideas from the business side on how to foster collaboration. Interacting with the top-students in Bagdad he was shocked to find out that all they wanted to do when finishing school was to get a good job in the government. Steven Levy pointed that an entrepreneurial infrastructure needs to go together with education to enable people realize their projects.

The conversation then moved to the topic of the entrepreneurial spirit. Can entrepreneurship be taught? The session concluded with a lively discussion on this and other questions posed by the audience.

This post was written by Emilio Martinez de Velasco Aguirre. Emilio is a PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley specializing in innovation and regional economic development. His research explores new initiatives to promote global innovation processes. As a consultant, Emilio has assisted various non-profit organizations developing strategies to create value for Latin America by linking local talent, knowledge and technology with actors and organizations in Silicon Valley.

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