We hear from Google's head of Pan-African institutions, government affairs, and public policy about Africa’s burgeoning technology landscape, and why she is so optimistic about the continent’s future.
In this multimedia feature, Ambassador Mark A. Green (ret.), president and CEO of the Wilson Center, speaks with Pren-Tsilya Boa-Guehe, Google’s head for pan-African institutions, government affairs, and public policy. They discuss how technological advancements are booming across Africa, guiding the continent toward economic opportunities, and creating a path for fruitful US and global collaboration with African innovators.
Mark Green, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Hello from the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. I'm Mark Green, the center's president and CEO. It's a great pleasure to welcome you to this multimedia feature that’s part of the Wilson Quarterly special issue entitled Why Africa Matters. With a focus on six key themes, it examines Africa's increasing consequence on the global stage. To provide a close look at the rapidly changing technological landscape on the continent, I'm speaking with Google's lead for Pan-African Institutions, Government Affairs and Public Policy, Pren-Tsilya Boa-Guehe, where she oversees policy engagement with the African Union Commission, UN Economic Commission for Africa, the African Development Bank—among many other regional organizations. Pren-Tsilya, thank you for joining us today and for being part of this important conversation.
Pren-Tsilya Boa-Guehe, Google’s Head for Pan-African Institutions, Government Affairs, and Public Policy
Thank you so much. It's really a pleasure to be here with you and to be able to have this conversation.
Pren-Tsilya, you've worked on humanitarian affairs. You've been a foreign service officer and bilateral missions and international organizations in Africa. Now you have this amazing position with Google. What are the opportunities? What attracted you to this work?
I think to start, it's important to share why government affairs and public policy exist, right? A lot of private institutions have government affairs and public policy departments that are dedicated to working with regulators, legislators, legislators, policy makers, civil society, and thought leaders to really translate some of what the business priorities are to be a constructive partner in the host country, and to really do some commercial diplomacy, if you will.
For me, this really builds upon the work that I had been doing with the State Department as an economic officer. I worked closely with the African Union Commission, where I was at the US mission to the African Union, and now I'm doing it here for Google—working with the African Union Commission, U.N. agencies, and development banks. For me, these are critical partners, right? When we talk about what is the future vision, what are the priorities, what are the continent's priorities and potential, we really have to be talking to the leadership—and there's no greater convening mechanism than the African Union. It's really the continent's premier convening platform for the sharing of best practices and policies, and for setting the tone and the agenda for the continent. It's a privilege to be able to work with this institution, and many other institutions, to see how Google can be helpful.
You know, 20 and 30 years ago, I would have argued with you in the sense that I think a lot of the institutions were still nascent, still developing. But I'm impressed with how quickly the capacity is growing—and you're right: One of the problems that we've seen for far too long is that we all have notions about where we want Africa to go. What we have not been as good at is actually asking Africans where they would like to go in terms of the future. You're obviously in a great place and well qualified.
Let me ask you this (and again, I started my career in a little village in Kenya, not too far from where you are). In my day, we only had a wind-up telephone, a single wind-up telephone in the entire village—a very different time—and I think when Westerners think of Africa, I think they're caught in that time warp, right? I think that's what they think about. Talk a little bit about how rapidly changing technology is causing a significant shift in the way that Africa operates commercially. Again, those opportunities are not just in [the] capitals, but throughout the continent.
Ambassador, you would be pleasantly surprised. We look forward to bringing you home to the continent so you can see just how much has changed in such a short period of time. I live in Nairobi. I've been living there for about a year and a half at our Google office in Kenya. And I talked about this during the US-Africa Leaders Summit in December, but in the year and a half that I've been in Nairobi, I think I've seen Kenyan shillings—the Kenyan currency, the actual paper currency—less than a handful of times. I haven't had to use it at all because everything is conducted through digital payments—from my electricity and water bills, to my hair to Uber [rides]. Everything is conducted through digital payments and digital transactions called M-Pesa.
We foresee the digital economy for the continent to be worth $180 billion dollars by 2025, that’s about 5% of GDP for the continent. That's only a few years away. -Pren-Tsilya Boa Guehe
That, to me, speaks volumes about what is possible when we equip Africans with phones and devices, when we give technology a chance and innovation a chance. I mean, we talk about leapfrogging, but I think really what happens is the sprinting ahead, right? Leaps and bounds beyond what is even foreseeable. To see a country really operating at this scale on mobile payments and mobile phones for everything, it's just really incredible. And I think more of that is possible across the continent. Obviously, it's not equally and evenly distributed; we don't have the same levels of growth in all countries. Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Egypt are really sort of anchor countries that are leading the digital economy, and it would be great to see more of that diversified throughout the continent.
You know, in my experience, Africans are among the most dynamic, entrepreneurial, creative people on the face of the earth. And I think in many ways Americans are sort of asleep at the switch and not realizing how rapidly Africans, particularly young African leaders, who are embracing the technology— groundbreaking, as you put it, payment apps and technology—[it’s] really quite startling. Given how rapidly it's going, talk a bit about what you see ahead. If we have this conversation five years from now, how different will it be?
I think there's a lot of potential opportunities that we can really seize, especially from a US government, [from a] US private sector perspective. There are a few upcoming opportunities, particularly the African Continental Free Trade Area. So, this is the African Union’s signature trade initiative to really create a single customs union for Africa—groundbreaking— to harmonize the rules across 55-member states, including with a digital trade provision that will talk about how we share data across Africa borders. How do we protect consumers and businesses? How do we bring more businesses online to facilitate e-commerce? And how do we adopt emerging technologies like cloud and AI? I think that is one really critical opportunity that we have. The African Union is working on this as we speak, and they're trying to finalize it before the end of the year.
The second opportunity on the US government side, we have a few. The US government launched the Digital Transformation with Africa initiative, which is focusing on modernizing our trade relationship with the continent, really to make the relationship keep up and fit for the digital age that we are currently in. How do we invest in human capital development, in infrastructure, in developing regulatory enablement, to drive more business on the continent and really do this as a partnership? And let's not forget AGOA. When I first started at the State Department, AGOA was like our signature trade initiative with the continent. I remember working on it in Zambia when we hosted a conference there and it was set to expire in 2025. This is really a pivotal opportunity as well—to not only renew AGOA, but hopefully revitalize it, so that it includes some digital economy provisions that can really set Africa up for the future. To center it and really not just have it be included, but have it lead in the digital economy for the world.
That's fantastic and extremely encouraging, right? I think for the longest time, Africa was really a place of lots of countries with relatively modest markets who, you know, didn't really have much in terms of policy coordination. And just as we were talking about the AU, that's just changing and it's changing really fast. Talk a bit about how important the economies of scale are. And then secondly, when we talk about Africa, it's not simply that you can pull together many millions of people. It's how young they are and how they're on the front-end of their careers and so as this technology becomes more and more available, it's going to have an exponential acceleration in the streams and flows and commercial opportunities.
That's right. And I think sometimes, for some reason, people are very surprised to hear that Africans exhibit some of the same consumer behaviors that we have in the West once they have access to devices. Once we have phones here on the continent, SMEs [small and medium sized enterprises], which are the backbone of African economies; in many countries, SMEs comprise 80 to 90% of the labor force and driving the revenue to these countries. But there was a report that came out—I want to say last month or a few months ago by the International Finance Corporation—that really highlighted that less than 7% of all SMEs—the some 44 million SMEs that exist on the continent—less than 7% are currently online or using digital technologies.
If the United States wants to be poised to benefit mutually from this growth, we need to position ourselves and really invest and contribute meaningfully to the development of the tech ecosystem here. -Pren-Tsilya Boa Guehe
In this globalized world—this globalized economy—if you don't have a presence, you're not present. You're missing out on market opportunities. You're missing opportunities for people to discover your products and to go beyond your physical location, for people to really identify and purchase the products and services. And so what we really have to do is focus on these SMEs that are the backbone of our economies. How do we bring them—how do we accompany them—in the digital transformation journey? How do we realize the digital economy's potential? By increasing their skills, their access to capital, and helping to enable them to really drive innovation. I think it will come from them; the majority of what will come for the continent will come from SMEs. That's really where we have to start: at the base of the ecosystem, which is the SMEs.
We've seen between $4 to $6 billion per year being driven by African startups, leading to some of the top unicorns across the world. I think that can only grow if we really take the time to invest in the future of our young people. -Pren-Tsilya Boa Guehe
We foresee the digital economy for the continent to be worth $180 billion dollars by 2025, that’s about 5% of GDP for the continent. That's only a few years away. Two years away, to be exact. It's within reach, but there are some really critical things that we have to do. We have to prioritize developing skills. We have to invest in infrastructure. We have to really leverage these regulatory enablement mechanisms that we have right now, and seize the opportunities so that we can get there in time for these young people who are going to drive us to the future.
You just started to talk about where I wanted to go next. It's extraordinary how much is happening, but we're not there yet in the sense that there are still some things that we need to do. You've talked about some of the investment that we need to make in young people. Talk a bit about the policies that we need to see to really fully open the door to the opportunities of this future
I think there's so much that young people are already doing on their own, right with the limited resources that we have on the continent. And it is so powerful to see that there are over 700,000 software developers on the continent today, and many of them are self-taught. They went online, found a program like Coursera, for example, which Google offers, or an equivalent program,and taught themselves these high-value, high-income-earning skills that have created these high-demand jobs. Now we have a lot of young people building applications to create startups that are becoming unicorns worth over $1 billion in valuation and really driving greater investment to the continent. And more than investment, they're driving innovation that is not just serving the population here, but being exported globally. It's a global good, right? When we invest in our young people, we're investing in ourselves as well in our future.
I think there's really a lot to be done here. One of the things that gives me a lot of optimism, I like the positive examples that I see in Kenya, where we are institutionalizing software developer training as part of the education curriculum. There's currently a pilot program to do this; they're called TVET, trade and vocational educational institutions. These are like alternatives to universities—trade schools—and they're offering these courses to students. As part of the formal curriculum, you can get a software developer certificate. I think that's phenomenal when a government can create regulations that enable the skill development that is required for the tech part of the ecosystem. You need those techies, those people who are highly skilled in the development of the technology.
And so we need governments—African governments—to be investing, to be developing curriculums that promote this—to be developing incentives for startups, and protections so that people want to and are encouraged to take risks and start a new product and launch it. Whether that's through tax incentives or leave so that they can have a job—or maybe take some leave to go start a new business. We need opportunities to encourage our young people to take those risks because when we do, it bears fruit. We've seen between $4 to $6 billion per year being driven by African startups, leading to some of the top unicorns across the world. I think that can only grow if we really take the time to invest in the future of our young people.
Obviously, Google is one of the world's largest and greatest technology companies. A few years ago, I had a conversation with someone at Google when they were talking about incentivizing participation of young people into software development and app design. They said, “Look, this isn't charity. This is instead unlocking what is often a unique, innovative, fresh approach to societal challenges using technology.” What have you seen in terms of unusual or unique African contributions to solutions that have come through the enabling of these technologies?
I've seen a lot of really, really great startups, and I was just thinking through the list of the many…
You had mentioned M-Pesa, and by itself, if nothing else, that's a remarkable contribution.
It's a remarkable product, and we have a lot in fintech as well. Flutterwave is another one from Nigeria. InstaDeep is a recent example that just happened this quarter, this year. InstaDeep is an API startup, and they were acquired by a company called BioNTech this year for over $600 million this year.
There are really a lot of innovative products that are coming out of this. We did a startup pitch competition two weeks ago at the African Union Private Sector Forum that took place in Nairobi. We brought startups from Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya (of course)—and they were presenting all different types of products, right? One young person had a health application that tracks the current status of a sickness, of individuals that live in rural areas, and then transmits that data to community centers or clinics that are nearby—so really trying to facilitate access to health services.
We have a lot of development of access to loans and financial products to make finance and capital more accessible to people in rural areas. We saw a lot of those sorts of products, and I'm excited about agriculture in particular. We still have a lot of agrarian-based economies across the continent, and I've seen products where startups are using AI to look at things like the current status of the plants. (Is there some sort of sickness or disease that is plaguing the crops?) And there’s also a recommendation for how to treat that current crop. It’s really, really interesting.
Some of the technology is based off of Google's technology, the foundational models that we make accessible to the public, and it’s really interesting to see how these young people take that technology, build upon it, and create something totally new that is relevant. [They’re] really creating a solution to the needs in their communities and I think we'll see a lot more of a lot more of this.
I can tell you are rather depressed about your job and your work–obviously your enthusiasm is infectious and all that you see around you are really bright spots when it comes to looking at the future. If I were to ask you what is the one thing you would like Americans to understand about today's Africa—the emerging Africa—that perhaps they're not prepared for, what would it be?
Ambassador, this is it! This is the real question here and I think you hit it—you hit the nail on the head in your introduction. The Africa of today is not the Africa of yesterday. With or without us, this continent is going to move forward. We're already in the midst of a digital revolution, and that's with little means and little resources.
If the United States wants to be poised to benefit mutually from this growth, we need to position ourselves and really invest and contribute meaningfully to the development of the tech ecosystem here. There's an unprecedented opportunity—a window of opportunity that we can seize right now—and we need to prepare ourselves by coming together, uniting the government, the US private sector, the African private sector, African governments. [By] having real conversations about some of the regulatory challenges and barriers, about some of the best practices that we're seeing that can be adopted on the African continent, about how we [can] set a new standard for responsible use of AI on the continent and cloud. And really, how do we leverage technology to unleash some of that economic growth that we've been waiting to see realized across Africa? I would say the time is now. The Africa that we knew before, where we were focused on aid, is not the same. And if we don't see that, we will miss it. We will miss the party, we will miss the boat. That's my message.
That's a great message and that's the reason, quite frankly, that we're doing this Wilson Quarterly special issue: because too many people don't realize the good news and the exciting opportunities that are occurring.
I think what's so exciting about it are the contributions that we're seeing from young, energetic, optimistic, bright, creative young Africans [that] will lift lives in far-off places—not just in their community, not just in their country, not even just in their continent, but really all over the world. I understand why you're excited. It is a great time. It is Africa's moment, as we all say. Thank you so much for your thoughts and ideas. You're really giving us good reason for hope. Again, not just hope for Africa, but hope for the world, as Africa gets its moment at the table and its opportunity to contribute. Thank you very much.
Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure, and I look forward to seeing what comes out of these discussions, and how we can continue to collaborate together going forward. I really appreciate it.
Thank you again for being with us, and to our audience, I thank you for joining us. I hope you take some time to explore the rest of this special edition of the Wilson Quarterly on Why Africa Matters. This is Africa's time on the world stage, increasingly, and I think it's important for all of us to understand where Africa has been—and more importantly, where Africa is going. Thanks, everyone.
Ambassador Mark A. Green (ret.) is the president and CEO of the Wilson Center. From 2017 to 2020, Green served as administrator of the US Agency for International Development. He has also served as president of the International Republican Institute, executive director of the McCain Institute, president of the Initiative for Global Development, and senior director at the US Global Leadership Coalition. Green served as the US ambassador to Tanzania from mid-2007 to early 2009, as well as four terms in the US House of Representatives, representing Wisconsin’s 8th District.
Pren-Tsilya is the government affairs & public policy manager for Google.
Cover photo: Google's offices in Accra, Gahna, courtesy of Google.