It’s a challenging time to be an optimist. There are blights on our time. If we cannot turn ostensible optimism into action to address the world’s wrongs, we are failing our fellow humans, and ourselves.
Innovation must save the world, we say. It’s the theme of a conference in California in two weeks. But why, some might ask, does the world need saving?
An angry climate is biting back. Social and political systems we believed had evolved to a comfortable stasis turn out to be fragile, insufficient, and reversible. Do people really think we’d be better off without democracy? Apparently a growing number do. And we’re forced more with every passing day to acknowledge that the comfort and wealth so many of us consider an arrived entitlement was in fact purchased through the sweat or suffering of others. Worse, they’re still suffering. Yet it’s hard to accept that the floods that blight Pakistan were in effect caused by our gas-guzzling, air-conditioned, high-flying lifestyle.
Perhaps it’s not our right to be optimistic while eating meat, traveling to our second homes, or failing to knock on doors for candidates who value fairness…But this is not a piece about guilt. It’s a paean to innovation. And a call for its necessity.
So when we gave our Techonomy 2022 conference in November the theme “Innovation Must Save the World,” we were thinking about three things in particular: the climate crisis, the crisis of democracy, and the inequality crisis—both inside countries, including our own, and at a more macro level, between countries and regions of the world.
We have a panoply of extraordinary speakers, starting with Nobel Peace Prize Winner Maria Ressa. But the speaker we’ve chosen to kick us off when we get down to business on Monday morning November 14 is Fatoumata Ba, the Senegalese entrepreneur and investor. (She had a major success as a co-founder of Jumia, the major Africa-based e-commerce company.) Her Janngo venture capital firm, based in Paris and Abidjan, Ivory Coast, focuses its investments in African entrepreneurs, particularly companies with women founders that assist the small businesses that are the lifeblood of the continent’s economy. In effect, Ba’s macro concern is equality, though her investments typically have a sustainability angle as well.
“‘Innovation must save the world’ is what got me to be an entrepreneur and then an investor,” she says in a prep call. “Tech and innovation can save the world, starting with Africa, but it has to happen at a faster pace and more massive scale than it is happening today. I’m coming to Techonomy because it’s a workshop, not just people talking and feeling good about it. I hope to be somewhere where the commitment to act is real.”
“In Africa,” she says with passion and eloquence, “we need to create 900 million jobs in the next thirty years, which is pretty crazy. Nobody has ever had to create this many jobs in such a short timeframe. Every year we create about three million jobs. But we need 20-30 million just to keep up with the challenge. Entrepreneurship, for me, is the most powerful engine to create jobs at the speed and scale we need.”
“There is massive underestimation of the potential and needs in the African investment ecosystem,” she avers. “Today Africa represents less than 1% of VC funding globally, though we are 15% of the world’s population. These new 900 million people will need to be fed, educated, housed, cared for and employed. It won’t happen if we just let the existing systems work.”
“In Africa we have no choice but to have a model for venture capital and tech that is truly inclusive. We want to leverage tech for enabling access to essential products & services for as many Africans as possible, and help SMEs [small and medium enterprises] get access to markets and capital. And finally, create jobs at scale, with a focus on women and young people.
“In general, the West sees that if you don’t have peace somewhere you don’t have prosperity. But in fact it’s the other way around. If people are not feeling well about great things at home they will cross borders and take planes or boats or anything else to greener pastures–Europe, the US or wherever.”
“Beyond the moral case, equality is also a business case! For instance, bridging the gap for women entrepreneurs could boost Africa’s GDP by 10% by 2025” she sums up. This is the way Techonomy’s best and most powerful speakers think. The world must be seen in moral terms, and to separate the discussion of tech and innovation from equality concerns is to fail to see the big picture.
Here is a person who is making something meaningful out of her optimism.
If you come to Techonomy, this is the kind of thing you will hear. These are the kinds of problems we believe need to be discussed, and as Ba says, acted upon.