An Insider’s View of Senegal’s Vibrant Tech Landscape

Technology Policy

An Insider’s View of Senegal’s Vibrant Tech Landscape

Commentary
Posted on: 25th April 2022
Daouda Lo
Head of Tech, Senegal

Technology continues to redefine and reimagine how I live my life. I didn’t touch a computer until I was 20, but I have now founded five tech startups, four of which continue to flourish. My mother, who lives in Dakar, Senegal, at almost 80 years old now chats to friends, organises her “tontine” microcredit groups and “shops” online, all on WhatsApp.

The future looks a lot brighter for a boy living in Senegal today than it did when I was young, because of the opportunities that cloud-based technologies, a vibrant tech startup scene and a supportive government are bringing.

From the moment I encountered my first computer at engineering school in Morocco, I was hungry for more. Open-source software was big at that time, so I was able to learn a huge amount very quickly because the systems were open and there was momentum behind peer sharing, learning and collectively building complex pieces of software.

I see that same collaboration and excitement in Senegal and across Africa today. There is a frenzy of activity – extremely bright people trying to solve very localised problems and issues. Africa is a budding tech superpower, with the potential to be a tech-startup giant. But, as I learned from my early experience as a startup founder, realising all the benefits that technology has to offer will only be possible if we have a healthy startup environment that isn’t afraid of failure, and where innovation flourishes.

In a report we released in February, Supercharging Africa’s Startups: The Continent’s Path to Tech Excellence, TBI found that if current positive trends are sustained and the transformative potential of technology is unlocked, Africa tech startup funding could grow to more than $90 billion by 2030. This figure is not wild. Funding growth for tech startups on the continent is now breathtaking, with growth rates six times the global average, a record $4.9 billion raised in 2021 – more than double the previous year – and a record $1 billion reached in the first six weeks of this year. But the distribution of that funding is hugely unequal, as my colleague Belinda Baah outlined recently.

The closer the creators of technologies are to the challenges they address, the more effective they are likely to be. I know because I am a both a creator and user of tech.

But it’s going to take a few things to get us to the point where Africa’s tech potential is truly being realised. These include:

  1. Improving the business environment. The cost of unclear and bureaucratic regulatory compliance across all 54 African countries is high for tech startups that want to scale. We don’t have a market like in the US or India or China. In the current operating environment, it’s impossible to carve out a product and have it deployed in this many countries. Things are starting to change, but the pace of change needs to increase so African tech entrepreneurs can think and aim big.
  2. Reaching that $90 billion tech-financing goal by 2030. Venture capital for African tech startups didn’t exist when I started out and while the latest figures are encouraging, it’s going to be vital for the best and brightest tech innovators to have access to good finance. The private sector needs to partner with governments and donors to help ensure the right founders get funding, and that solutions help to improve people’s lives.
  3. Strengthening support networks. My first startup failed because of timing: it was too early for the startup to succeed. I had to tackle the problems on my own because the talent pool was not there to support me. Even if you want to go big and you have the finance to do so, you need a deep pool of technical talent to draw on – TBI is advocating for a Pan-African Tech Startup Network to help tackle this problem.

Two of my startups have grown to be successful platforms in Senegal, connecting thousands of people and businesses with each other and with impressive education and skills opportunities. I am proud to be able to help people across my home country to use tech to improve their lives, but none of it would be possible without cloud-based technology.

I say this not just because I am a former Linux developer – the operating system that runs 90 per cent of the public cloud – but because cloud in itself is the gamechanger.

This technology allows young African tech entrepreneurs to enter a global market at incredibly low cost with very low barriers. Low-code or no-code platforms such as Oracle APEX are helping entrepreneurs to create, experiment and deploy apps quickly without writing a line of code, or while keeping code for any optional customisation to a minimum.

Cloud computing is also a gamechanger for governments trying to improve their citizens’ lives. When Covid-19 hit Senegal, the government managed to quickly secure 300,000 vaccines and was faced with a tight deadline for distributing them and prioritising elderly and vulnerable recipients across the country to get the vaccines into the arms of those who needed them the most. The work TBI had been doing with the government of Senegal and Oracle on a cloud-based health system became extremely critical. It meant we were able to not only pre-register people in the system but also easily ask about their co-morbidities, and ensure the most vulnerable people were prioritised for vaccination. This happened in a fraction of the time it would have taken if the system had to be developed using the tools of the pre-cloud world.

Now is the time for both governments and private tech sectors to accelerate cloud adoption and create a virtuous circle of innovation and growth for their citizens.

From a vibrant tech-startup scene to national, government-led innovation in the health sector, we are witnessing the early days of a real tech revolution here in Senegal – one I’m proud to be a part of.

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