Meg Whitman: This is what tech innovations should look like

Modern High Tech Authentic Robot Arm Holding Contemporary Super Computer Processor. [Getty Images]

US Ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, has recalled her time at the helm of eBay, a global online marketplace.

Speaking at the ongoing Connected Africa Summit in Nairobi, Whitman said that taking the reins in 1998, when the internet was becoming prominent, had her thinking of eBay as a tech company. Yet, when they really focused on their mandate, they realised they were addressing questions that most people did not consider tech issues.

“One of the most important things I learned in my business career is this: every business is a technology business. Everyone, including me, thought of eBay first as a tech company,” she said. “Our success came because we took business questions and turned them into tech questions.”

Such questions included: How do we help people buy things efficiently? How could we help people pay for those things safely? And how could we help people ship those things quickly?

And this is the approach that Ms Whitman encourages businesses to have in the region. This is with the understanding that no business in the 21st century is immune to technological advancements.

She says even when it does not look like a tech matter, it will always end up being a tech matter.

“I like to joke that we should change the name aquaculture to fish-tech so that the industry gets more investment attention. But it’s not completely a joke. Today, fisheries rely on cutting-edge technologies like GPS, AI, and data analytics that have the potential to revolutionise fishing and make Africa a world leader,” she said.

She added: “And it’s not just fishing; in the 21st century, farming is now ag-tech, medicine is med-tech, finance is fintech, and fashion is fashion tech. Whatever your country’s specific strengths and challenges are, that is where technology applies.”

To Whitman, every business is a technology business.

President William Ruto with Amb. Meg Whitman and executives from Nike, GAP and Levi Strauss, at the company's head office in San Francisco, United States. [PCS]

“When I say every business is a technology business, it is a reminder that technology innovation is not about what is flashy. It is about addressing real problems to help real people like our ancestors did when creating tools,” she said.

But how should these tech solutions look?

Whitman said at times, innovation may look flashy, just like back in 1998, with solutions such as satellites, AI, and e-money; but it may also look much different than expected.

“However, innovations always include three elements: solution-focused, specific, and sustainable,” she said. Being solution-focused, she said, is the foundation of shaping the future of a connected Africa.

“Technology must be purposeful, and I must say here in Kenya, I have been impressed by the innovative solutions they have developed sometimes in partnership with American companies but at other times by startups,” said the envoy.

She gave an example of Zipline, an American-based tech solution company in the health space, that operates in Kenya, Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria. The firm uses drones to deliver life-saving medical products to hard-to-reach areas.

“While the company is based in America, each African country it enters hires and trains the locals.

This means they create a true partnership where engineering and technology solutions are driven from the ground up,” said Ms. Whitman.

She insisted that the tech solutions must matter also to real people and make sense in the local context, adding that the success of the African economy lies in solving problems that are very specific.

“At first glance, the problem might not look like technology issues, but they are. Kenya is full of success stories of companies applying technology to aquaculture,” she said.

Additionally, the technology solutions should also be sustainable. This is how long the solution will last and if it will be improving with the morphing of the problem it solves or the behavior of the consumer.

“Technology innovation is not a one-time innovation. It requires constant adaptation and must be maintained over time,” said the Ambassador.

Whitman said Africa is a continent full of economic potential and in her view, technology is key to prosperity.

“We can work together to shape the future of connected Africa,” she said. “I am confident that Africa will be home to important technological innovation in the 21st century.”

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