Africa Needs Innovation To Bridge Unemployment Gap – Siya Xusa

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The 2015 Stanbic IBTC Business Leadership Series was a unique one. It featured two renowned innovators and guest speakers. And one of these speakers was an internationally acclaimed rocket scientist, Siyabulela Xusa. Driven by an uncommon mission and strong belief in self-actualization, he set out very early in life to make a difference in his chosen area of interest.

At only 26, Xusa, has a planet named after him in recognition of his technological exploits. He spoke to newsmen at the sideline of the event on what Africa must do to achieve sustainable development. NKIRUKA NNOROM was there and captured the interview for Vanguard.

Success in building a new generation of leaders in business depends to a large extent on the existence of an effective system, defined by appropriate policy direction and existence of an enabling environment. Have you seen any signs that we are on the path of creating that kind of model in Africa?

The bottom line is that Africa, right now, is faced with two fundamental forces. First, is the fact that we can’t over-rely on resources. If you take a look at the economy, we have lower commodity prices and that is very fundamental. The second fundamental point I have seen is that Africa is a very young population. About 625 million Africans are between the ages of 16 and 25. So, there is a huge population that is young and will be entering the labour force.

Those two fundamental forces have now made governments and businesses to be more conscious of the fact that the future of Africa would have to be based on innovations because we need to be independent of resources and we need to have young people innovating because the companies we have in existence today won’t be enough to give the jobs that are needed. Those two forces have now shaped governments to take entrepreneurship more seriously.

Governments are taking the young generation more seriously because the young generation is in the majority. The average age of an African president is in the high 60s, so we are being taken more seriously and innovation is being taken more seriously.

But having said that, there is still a long way to go and the path to follow is education. We should focus more on engineering, science and technology to ensure that we can be globally competitive to embrace the opportunities in the world and have the right policies that make it easy for entrepreneurs to do business in Africa.

For instance, the movement of goods and services in Africa is hindered by the visa regulations we have in place. Americans are more welcomed in Africa than our African brothers. We could change that to make it easy for Africans to move and innovate across Africa. More importantly, we should shift our mindsets as Africans on what is possible. History has not being in our favour. So, we need to project our achievements, the positives about Africa.

You have been at the vanguard of transformation in Africa. During your presentation, you mentioned the next revolution, which could be economic as well as innovation. What factors underscore your line  of thought?

The line of thought comes from looking at history and analyzing history. The biggest constraint to Africa in the past 50 years was that there was a lot of discrimination, our colonial past stunted growth and a big part of Africa clamoured for liberation. The second point is that now that we have the liberation, now that we have stable governments in place, we have the rule of law that has somewhat been established in most part of Africa, we need to create jobs, we need to create employment opportunities.

Most Africans are tired of the aid; we don’t want to be seen as accepting aid, and we want to be seen as standing competitively and with veracity when it comes to trade. Talking about trade and not aid, it is very clear that we need an economic revolution. Transforming the levels of inequality across the continent has to be through economic revolution. We have to innovate.

We have to come up with new ways of doing things. We need to be able to take resources and come up with things that have never been done before. Africa is growing because we have abundant mineral resources. But it is important we take the abundant resources and create high value added goods. Innovation is important and young people must be at the forefront.

Leadership is obviously very critical to this process. You just talked about the huge gap between the leaders (average age of 60) and the governed (average age of 25), which is obviously a challenge. What other challenges do you see affecting the economic as well as innovation revolution?

I think the generational gap is already a challenge. But I think the bigger challenge is between the generations. There is nothing wrong with age. Age brings maturity, it brings experience but there has to be that clear line of communication. Leaders of today must be in touch with the reality of young people and young people of today must be conscious of the challenges been faced by the leaders. It is about the increase in communication.

Access to education and opportunities are even bigger challenges. A story like mine could happen in Enugu, Kano or anywhere in Africa if young people have that access to opportunity. How do they bring more access to opportunity? It is through investing: investing in healthcare, investing in an environment that enables people to thrive.

However, every challenge is an opportunity and what we have seen from African and Nigerian entrepreneurs are people being rewarded for rising from those challenges. I will answer your question by saying that I don’t see it as a challenge. I see the generational gap as an opportunity for young people to take the lead. As you are aware, institutions don’t create leaders; circumstances in the situations create leaders. Mandela became a great leader because of the situation that South Africa was in. Challenges and opportunities will be the situation that will create the next level of entrepreneurial African leaders.

Looking at the geo-political balance, Africa is still trying to leverage technology to drive growth and development, unlike the West where the thought is newer ways through strategy. How can we achieve a fine balance between deploying technology and achieving business objectives?

Technology is simply part and parcel of an overall business. We cannot say that technology would solve all the problems because sometimes the problem is not necessarily technology, it could be human factors. It is important for us to shift that narrative to say that technology is not the magic bullet to solve all the problems but it should be part of the solutions.

We must first solve the basics like road infrastructure, rail networks (which is where industrialists come in), power lines, power plants, etcetera. We can’t just think that they have technology that works in the West; we must make it work in Africa. Technology is a tool; it’s not the overlying philosophy. But we must embrace it and apply it where it is relevant.

What about the fixation with business objectives and how businesses grow? How do we achieve sustainable growth?

The aim of being in business is to make profit, both today and in the future. The rapid rate at which the world is changing requires everyone to be aware of innovation and to embrace it because industries are going to change faster in the next 20 years than they have in the past 100-200 years. We have seen the confluence of multiple things; we have seen what information technology has brought, what renewable energy will do, we have seen the increase in access and ease of travel, people have been more connected, we have seen what social media has changed.

All these trends happening in the world have caused the world to change at a rate that it never has. We have what we call the network economy, where Uber, AB&B, Facebook don’t have physical structures. I am not saying companies should invest all their money in innovation but they have to be aware of it, otherwise, they will be caught off guard. Too often, you see big companies become complacent. Look at Kodak and a lot of other companies that didn’t embrace change. To embrace change, you must accept innovation.

A remarkable outcome of technological advancement is the reduction in the human workforce required to drive business operations. Customer service ethics may also take a hit. For a developing economy like Nigeria’s, which seeks to create employment for its huge army of unemployed youths, technology may seem like a threat after all.

I think that is a great question you asked and I would respond by saying that technology is not the problem; the inability to retool ourselves is the problem. Robots are not the problem. What are we doing to retool human capital to use robots? What are we doing in terms of training these people, from programming, access to opportunities, education?

Once we have people with the ability to retool themselves, then it is fine. A lot of people thought computers would be a problem but we found ways to train people to use computers. In the same way, we have trained people to use mobile phones. It is the inability to retool ourselves, and the inability to scale and educate ourselves that is the bigger problem, not technology. The world is becoming so much more competitive with jobs being able to shift in geography.

Is every business a digital business?

I don’t think I am fully competent to answer that but I think every business is in the digital age and we must understand what it means. It is a matter of seeing how that is applicable to your business because we are all in the digital age.

What do you think business leaders with the digital advantage should do?

I think the business leaders should use the digital advantage to enhance communication, to find platforms where they can grow their businesses by using the aspect of connectivity that you get from the digital age because digital age is not limited. How do you tap into that? Being in the energy space, I can only answer that with my limited knowledge and experience.

What is your assessment of the Nigerian economic landscape?

It is very exciting but Nigerians must make sure that they fully make the most of what they have by making sure that the thinking goes beyond commodities. There is a need to diversify the Nigerian economy through financial services, telecommunications and other sectors, but more importantly by tapping into Nigerian talents in Diaspora. Bringing back the Nigerians in Diaspora to Nigeria would produce amazing results not only in Nigeria. So, make the economy attractive to pull in those great talents in different sectors in America, London, etc. Nigeria is where it is now without these people in Diaspora. Imagine how much more Nigeria would improve if these talents are brought in.

You would have experienced black-outs since you stepped into the country. How do you advise we tackle this challenge?

I think that power outages hinder economic growth. When there is a shortage in something, it means we can be more innovative in terms of solutions. At first, we create a need and it often creates space for us. As a technologist, with the work that I do working on fuel cells, an important backup for power generation for powering cars, houses, malls, it creates an opportunity for energy storage products and I would love to see those markets growing. I see it as an opportunity.