African Entrepreneurs In The Halls of Silicon Valley History

Driving up the 101 highway from San Jose is like watching a timelapse of the Silicon Valley hall of fame. On a sunny California day, the quick drive from San Jose to Palo Alto includes views of global innovation titans such as Microsoft, Dell EMC, Oracle, Intel and NASA. Absent from view behind the Redwood trees, but still within a bike ride distance, engineers are hard at work at Apple in Cupertino and Facebook in Menlo Park. Palo Alto is home to Stanford University’s beautiful sprawling campus, which played a critical role in the early semiconductor industry that formed near the campus and evolved into what we know as ‘Silicon Valley’ today.

A detour on the Shoreline Boulevard exit leads to Mountain View, a suburban oasis dominated by high technology companies today. It is hard to believe that what used to be a small agricultural town, has transformed into the home of one of the most innovative companies of the 21st century. In 1950, Mountain View’s population was approximately 7,000. Today, Google has about 20,000 employees at its Mountain View campus alone. These Googlers are easy to spot on their colorful Google bikes, dashing between meetings around the impressive campus.

Right off the Shoreline exit, and half a mile before the Google campus, is a real bonafide trip down Silicon Valley’s memory lane. The Computer History Museum was established in 1996 and is dedicated to preserving and presenting the stories and artifacts of the information age, while exploring computing’s ongoing impact on society. The museum’s deceptively modern architecture disguises the remnants of Silicon Valley lore housed inside. The list of current exhibits include the IBM 1401 Demo Lab, described as “a working medium-sized computer operation from the 1960s, including working key punches, printers, card readers, sorters and tape drives.” Not to be out done, there is also a PDP-1 Demo Lab. Sadly, the exhibit exploring the story of GeoCities ended months ago.

The museum’s unique appeal is how it takes visitors back in time to witness how quickly technology, innovation and entrepreneurship have transformed the community just outside its doors.  The history of technology in Africa has not always received attention, but there are both African and western technology advancements that have been significantly influenced by the engagement of members of the African diaspora. The recent evolutions in technology, innovation and entrepreneurship on the continent today prove that many of the most significant stories are unfolding before our eyes. 

To honor this growing movement of technological innovation on the continent, the African Technology Foundation and the Computer History Museum partnered to host a screening of the documentary, Venture: An Entrepreneur’s Journey.

The Venture documentary film, co-produced by the African Technology Foundation and the LIONS@FRICA initiative, follows the journeys of the entrepreneurs behind Zuvaa, BambaPOS, InsureAfrika, and Car Parts Nigeria, the 2015 winners of the largest pan African pitch competition, DEMO Africa. As a prize for winning DEMO Africa, the entrepreneurs traveled to Silicon Valley, where they were immersed in the startup culture and introduced to ecosystem stakeholders. As indicated in the film, the entrepreneur’s’ journey from Africa to Silicon Valley, and their unique individual experiences along the way, serve as an indicator of the African entrepreneurs readiness to engage with global innovation ecosystems. The stories of these future leaders of innovation in Africa are as diverse, as the entrepreneurs themselves, and the countries they represent.

The event was attended by Africa enthusiasts, curious technologist, and engaged community members. After an introduction to the film, the documentary was screened and a panel discussion on African innovation and entrepreneurship followed.

The panel discussion was moderated by Chinwe Ohanele, a legal associate with The African Technology Foundation. The panelist included Fiifi Deku, a technology entrepreneur and the Co-founder of the Launchpad Africa platform, Ozii Obiyo, an account manager at Amazon Web Services, and Mei Lin Fung, the co-founder of the People Centered Internet. Between Ozii and Mei Lin, who both met with and mentored the entrepreneurs that visited during the 2017 LIONS Innovation Tour, and Fiifi, who actively promotes diaspora engagement on the continent, the audience received a unique peek into how Silicon Valley ecosystem players are actively participating in bridging the knowledge and resource gaps for African entrepreneurs.

The panelists agreed that telling stories about African entrepreneurship through films, such as Venture, and other forms of media, is a key part of directing the world’s attention to the innovation coming out of Africa. Fiifi described how African curiosity, drive and resilience in the face of challenges, means that most people on the continent have been engaged in entrepreneurship or forced to innovate on a daily basis for centuries. He stressed the need to help stories of these achievements rise to the top of the world’s attention, especially in places like Silicon Valley, with its access to a wealth of resources and knowledge tempered by an over saturation of competing narratives.

In response to a question for best practices for supporting ecosystem development, Mei Lin offered examples of policies and initiatives that some Asian countries have implemented that have supported great developmental transformation. She shared that these examples could be used as models for African countries looking to foster economic development.

To a question about the types of African startups that are disrupting traditional models of business, Ozii shared his admiration of Okadabooks. This startup seeks to bypass the traffic in the Nigerian book publishing industry by making it easy to publish books, making it cheap to buy books and  making it fun to read books on mobile devices. They are driven by the concept that people will read if books are made cheap and easily accessible, and that accessibility will come from using mobile phones.

The event closed with Chinwe sharing some ATF announcements, which included the publication of the LIONS@FRICA Ecosystem Report, and the sequel to the documentary that will follow the the journeys of the winning entrepreneurs from DEMO Africa 2016.

Many in the audience were learning about the growth of Africa’s technology ecosystem for the first time. For many of them, and for the Computer History Museum as an organization, the venture screening shifted the lens to Africa as the future of innovation, and highlighted the  ways that, through technological applications, Africa’s innovators will solve real business and social problems both at home and abroad.

On this summer night, the Computer History Museum provided the local community a vision of Africa’s past and present, and in doing so painted the vision our shared future. As the last members of the audience filtered out into the dark, empty parking lot, a museum staff member encouraged the group to visit again to see the IBM 1401 in action. Then she said half jokingly, “Come quickly though. We’re running out of the punch cards that go in the machine and no one sells them any more.”