Government intervention has been a hot topic all week at AfricaCom, and it doesn’t seem like there is going to be a resolution to the problem anytime soon.
Of course there will always be a need to regulate any industry; commercial entities should not be left by themselves, they cannot be trusted; but where to you draw the line? Perhaps one of the issues we are facing in the tech space is a lack of qualified leaders.
“Technology ministers should be technologists,” said Mich Atagana, Head of Communications & Public Affairs, Africa at Google.
It’s a comment which is usually limited to the dark corners of old-man pubs, but now it seems to be leaking into the mainstream; career politicians are no good. Gone are the days where politicians used to be business men or the socially conscious out to make a difference, now we have career politicians who’s primary source of value seems to be a nice smile and an ability to speak well. They aren’t experts in their field, they have been trained for years in how to be media friendly and appealing to the general public.
Sounds good enough to win an election, but what does that actually mean when it comes to running a country; not much apparently.
Let’s use an example. In Kenya, M-PESA, the mobile money platform, was immensely successful because the regulation in the country was open enough to allow the new idea to succeed. Some might argue it was a lack of regulation as opposed to open rules, but that is irrelevant. M-PESA fundamentally changed the economic environment for the better, and opened up new opportunities for businesses and the underserved alike.
This success was enough for Vodafone to try and launch its own mobile money platform in South Africa, though here the strict regulations saw the initiative fail. This was not the only reason for the failure, traditional banking is accessible in South Africa so the need wasn’t as great, though the government wasn’t prepared to allow such a threat to the strict financial sector. The appetite to encourage new ideas and disruption was incredibly low, therefore the mobile money revolution died in South Africa.
Protecting the financial sector might have been a good decision at the time, but considering the growing euphoria surrounding mobile money nowadays, this does look like a very short-sighted and brainless. This is the problem with career politicians. They are not experts in their chosen field, therefore they lack the in-depth knowledge to make informed decisions. And these are the guys making the rules.
South Africa is the example here, but it certainly isn’t the only one. In the UK, Matt Hancock is the Minister of State for Digital and Culture. Hancock has a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, before gaining a MPhil in Economics. He then spent a short period of time working for his family’s computer software company, before taking a job as an economist at the Bank of England, specialising in the housing market. He then became an economic adviser to the former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, before being elected an MP and taking various roles in business, housing, energy and social issues.
We are sure Hancock is a highly intelligent individual and he does have some very limited experience in the technology space, however he is a generalist. There is no consistent path through the technology world, yet this is the man in charge of the rules which could define the digital economy in the UK. Some might argue, including your correspondent, that being smart, approachable and having a nice smile isn’t enough to be in charge.
Over-regulation and bad decisions are two problems all over the world, but Africa is one place where the businesses are starting to speak up and fight back. Hopefully this lesson can be learnt by other countries.