Jack Ma in Africa

What is Jack Ma doing in Africa?

Chinese business magnate Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of e-commerce giant Alibaba, has just concluded his first visit to Africa. He stopped in Kenya first before heading to the YouthConnekt Africa Summit in Kigali Rwanda. The significance of his visit should not be underestimated. It is not just international recognition that Africa is part and parcel of the global tech story (and not just a newcomer,) it is also a celebration of the continent’s main asset; it’s youth.

Over the last few years we have all become familiar with the staggering implications of e-commerce. Many have encountered Tom Goodwin’s quote about how Uber, the world’s largest taxi company owns no cars; Facebook, the world’s largest media company creates no content; Alibaba, the world’s most valuable retailer has no stock; and Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no property. The world has taken note, and is racing to create efficient services for consumers worldwide; Africa is no exception. Jumia, an online marketplace founded in Nigeria in 2012, became the continent’s first unicorn last year after surpassing a billion dollars in market value, and currently operates in 23 countries.

Ma’s visit alongside the UN’s trade and development agency UNCTAD highlights that the continent is at a critical turning point. Just over a year ago tech heavyweights Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates traversed the continent to get perspectives from African entrepreneurs – not a year later and Jack Ma and a host of Chinese business leaders are set to meet with young entrepreneurs and 10 sitting African presidents alike to see how to create sustainable and concrete outcomes. We are out of the curiosity phase, and it is time for action.

Connectivity in Africa is complex, and decision makers need to urgently address connectivity and infrastructure gaps that are keeping African entrepreneurs from innovating and competing on an international scale. While there are some exceptional developments afoot, including connectivity startup BRCK co-founded by AS+A speaker Erik Hersman, the pressure on state actors needs to increase. At this point, policy makers should ensure that they are helping and not hampering with the regulations they are putting in place, and facilitating entrepreneurship in their respective countries so that Jack Ma’s visit isn’t just a token of Africa’s potential rather than meaningful engagement with dynamic entrepreneurship across the continent.

Jack Ma was quoted by Fortune Magazine as saying “The Internet should be treated as a utility and should be treated also as the infrastructure of global development,” he said. “Everything will be online and everything online will have data. And data will be the energy for innovation.”

As a continent, we can’t afford to fetter African youth as they engage with one another and with the world

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