Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist has lauded African tech start-ups for the creation of thousands of businesses that change the daily lives of people across the continent positively.
Gates was speaking at the 14th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture Series at the University of Pretoria’s Mamelodi campus on Sunday. The theme of this year was “Living Together”, with a special focus on those who gave their lives during the struggle for liberation.
The multi-billionaire said for him, the most important thing about young people is the way their minds work. “Young people are better than old people at driving innovation, because they are not locked in by the limits of the past.”
The African entrepreneurs driving start-up booms in the Silicon Savannahs from Johannesburg and Cape Town, to Lagos and Nairobi are just as young – in chronological age, but also in outlook. The thousands of businesses they’re creating are already changing daily life across the continent, he said.
“When I started Microsoft in 1975 – at the age of 19 – computer science was a young field. We didn’t feel beholden to old notions about what computers could or should do. We dreamed about the next big thing, and we scoured the world around us for the ideas and the tools that would help us create it.
“But it wasn’t just at Microsoft. Steve Jobs was 21 when he started Apple. Mark Zuckerberg was only 19 when he created Facebook.
“Our foundation is also working with a young computer scientist from Makerere University who designed a mobile phone app that lets farmers upload a photo of their cassava plants and find out immediately whether it’s infected or not.
“These are the innovators who can drive an agricultural transformation across the continent − if they have the support they need. For many decades, agriculture has suffered from dramatic underinvestment. Many governments didn’t see the link between their farmers and economic growth.”
He also pointed out that one of the most exciting prospects is the role African governments can play in accelerating the use of digital technology to leapfrog the traditional models and costly infrastructure associated with banking and delivery of government services.
Because so many people in developing countries have mobile phones, tens of millions of people are storing money digitally on their phones and using their phones to make purchases, as if they were debit cards, he said.
“Mobile money services like m-Pesa in Kenya don’t just give people a better way to move money around. They give people a place to save cash to fund the start-up of a micro-enterprise or pay a child’s school exam fee. They create informal insurance networks of family and friends who can help with unexpected financial shocks like a crop failure or a serious medical illness.”
A digital financial connection can also help governments deliver services more efficiently, he said. “I’ve seen studies from India showing the government could save $22 billion a year by connecting households to a digital payment system and automating all government payments.”