Africa gets in your blood they used to say. I have been infected for more than a quarter of a century. So this is a bit of an emotional column for me. 6th March 2017 is the tenth anniversary of the launch of M Pesa. The original mobile money system improves the lives of millions every day. And has been the catalyst for the leading innovation ecosystem in Africa.
You may notice that this year is also the tenth anniversary of the launch of the iPhone. Over that decade, smartphones have been the defining technology in the developing world. Yet mobile money is more innovative and helps tackle a much bigger, tougher problem.
We seem to have lost sight of this idea in the tech industry. UBI (universal basic income), taxing robots and so on are the ideas du jour. Many of our leaders seem to believe the priority should be advising Governments on how to solve the problems they expect the technology industry to create in the future.
Where did that come from?
How did renaming and retreading the failed social and economic planning experiments of the 20th Century become a thing?
Why do we want to risk the consequences if (sorry when) these plans fail? The pain and suffering that will be inflicted on billions of the world’s poorest.
How have otherwise smart people convinced themselves that the future can be foreseen, designed and planned for on a grand scale?
“Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.”
Let’s take a step back. AI, robots and the rest will transform the way many jobs are performed. Its hard to predict what will emerge from such a transformation. One things is certain.
The outcome will be to unleash a huge wave of human potential.
Over the next 20 years technology will be automating manual work, replacing routine clerical tasks and maybe rendering lawyers and tax accountants obsolete. No-one should shed any tears. Least of all the those who live by innovation and entrepreneurship.
Nor should we indulge in scaremongering and exaggeration. The machines are not about to take over the world. The brilliant philosopher Daniel Dennett summed it up in this week's Lunch with the FT.
"All we are going to see in our lifetimes are intelligent tools. Superintelligence is logically possible but it is a pernicious fantasy that is distracting us from far more pressing technological problems."
Tech has an opportunity and a responsibility.
Technology does not solve real world problems on its own. Coupled with innovation, it can. And we need to get on with it.
Nothing illustrates this better than the PR storm which surrounded the relaunch of Nokia’s iconic 3310 handset at MWC last week. This is retro chic in the West. Meanwhile in Africa, M Pesa and its imitators are still creating new value from the original technology.
We are on the verge of a further revolution in information technology. There will be losers. People and communities will suffer when such a fundamental shift takes place. Governments should focus on dealing with that transition.
The Chairman's View
The tech industry needs to remember how Vodafone, the UK Department for International Development (DFID), Safaricom CEOMichael Joseph and his team started out. They sought out the most disadvantaged and excluded in Kenya. And used the technology they had available to create a product that would make a real difference. They worked as a team. They observed how their customers used the initial product. And they were not afraid to think big when the opportunity emerged.
Yes, the leverage provided by M Pesa helped Safaricom build and maintain a dominant position in the mobile market. But the openness of the platform and the sheer utility and simplicity of the concept were the inspiration for so much more.
A decade on, lets draw inspiration from that example.
To learn more about M Pesa and the mobile money story:
Watch this brilliant 6 minute video featuring Michael Joseph The M Pesa Story
Be a scholar for an hour and read The Long Run Poverty and Gender Impacts of Mobile Money
Keep learning and being inspired by the story at GSMA Mobile for Development
Or get out to Africa and see for yourself....
Kenny Fraser is the Director of Sunstone Communication and a personal investor in startups.