Africa, Business, Sci-Tech

Ekekwe on why Africa is swimming downstream in the ICT stakes

By Mandy De Waal 10 August 2011

By operating as a consumer rather than a developer of ICT, Africa is missing a massive opportunity to position itself competitively in the technology business, says Ndubuisi Ekekwe, founder of the African Institution of Technology. Ekekwe believes Africa needs to start participating in the production of components like microprocessors and nanotechnology. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Imagine a world without microprocessors. It is almost unthinkable because those tiny chips have infiltrated every part of our mobile and networked lives. Invented separately by Intel, Texas Instruments and Gareth AiReseach in the early 1970s, microprocessors have revolutionised the computer industry enabling people to build machines that are faster, more powerful and affordable.

A microprocessor or chip is made out of silicon and transistors, and South Africa is the tenth biggest producer of silicon globally. But raw materials mean nothing when it comes to participating in a $40 billion market that grew by some 25% last year, and looks set to surge because of the global popularity of tablet devices and smartphones.

“Technology is going to rule and will be the defining factor that separates nations irrespective of natural resources,” says Ekekwe. “Africa is doing exciting things in the field of ICT, but it is missing the most important part of technology diffusion. Everything in technology is dependent on microprocessors.”

Ekekwe explains the two different sectors in technology, the upstream and the downstream sector, by using the crude oil business as an analogy. “In the crude business there are those who are responsible for the marketing and the distribution. Then there are those like Mobil and BP with the intellectual property and technology to go right into the oceans and extract the crude oil. The upstream is where you make all the money, but the barrier to entry to the upstream is incredibly high.”

Watch Ndubuisi Ekekwe interview at TedXChange:

An inventor who holds a US patent for a microchip used in minimally invasive surgical robots, Ekekwe is the adjunct professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Babcock University in Nigeria, the author of an award-winning book on nanotechnology and microelectronics and holds numerous awards and fellowships. Among others these include Johns Hopkins University, Harvard Business School and the US National Science Foundation. Ekekwe hails from Nigeria where only multinationals participate in the upstream crude oil business. “If the multinationals had to leave Nigeria, the crude oil would sit in the ground and would be of no use because we simply don’t have the intellectual property to extract it,” he says.

“Intel takes silica which is very much like sand and transforms it into microprocessors. Essentially they’re taking an amount of sand that is worth less than a dollar and transforming it into technology worth thousands of dollars. Look at the margins they make. Africa then imports the microprocessors and we’re lucky if we make tens or hundreds of dollars for the same technology.”

Ekekwe, who will be in South Africa in October to speak at Tech4Africa says Africa is practicing information and communications technologies at the base of the pyramid. “The higher you go the more money you can demand, and we’re sitting right at the bottom. To change this we need to invest in producing semiconductors and microelectronics. We need to begin with teaching this at our universities so that we produce students who understand how to make the underpinnings of what powers our technology.”

What Ekekwe says makes sense. It is said when historians review the world’s economic progress during the twentieth century one of the key inventions that will be singled out for its contribution toward human advancement and economic growth will be microprocessor technology.

“When microprocessors advance, the world’s technology advances. Mobile phones can’t advance until microprocessors advance. Skype can’t advance until the servers that process Skype’s data advance. Africa needs to move to an industry that has the greatest impact on the modern economy, to the biggest industries in technology and currently we have no presence here. Instead we’ve cultivated a comfort in participating at the base of the pyramid instead of the top of the pyramid.”

Ekekwe’s call is a powerfully direct one, particularly for South Africa which in 2009 and 2010 had none other than an Umkhonto weSizwe commander and soldier heading up this country’s ICT portfolio. To achieve massive growth in the ICT sector we need to focus on the right things. DM


Read more:

  • More Value at Upstream Layer in Technology Pyramid by Ndubuisi Ekekwe’s blog;
  • Start me up – Britain has produced too few world-class technology firms. Is that about to change? in The Economist;
  • The Difference Engine: Intel left outside in The Economist;
  • Intel Trades Over 50 Years of Chip Design for ‘3D’ Processors in Time Magazine;

Photo: Ndubuisi Ekekwe believes that to be a meaningful player in technology, Africa needs to move from being a consumer to a developer of core ICT technologies. 

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