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Juliet Ehimuan: Building for the Next Billion Users

From farming to healthcare to logistics and communication, solving very real problems with solutions powered by technology is the billion-dollar dream that will unleash the Africa of the future.
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Dare to think big. Create moon shots. Think globally and act locally. There are great similarities in the challenges faced in communities across Africa. A solution being developed for a particular community has the potential to be applied to a larger user base. 10X that idea. Think about ways to apply it not just to your community but to the country, and the region

Juliet Ehimuan

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Where is the next billion dollar idea going to come from? It just might come from you.

The opportunity in Africa is big. The current population of 1.2 billion people is projected to more than double by 2050 to 2.5 billion. Over the same period, Nigeria will overtake the US as the third most populous country in the world, after India and China. Sub-Saharan Africa has the fastest growing labour force and consumer group in the world. It has a young dynamic population (70% under the age of 30). The global share of African urban residents is projected to grow from 11.3% in 2010 to 20.2% by 2050. This growing population is faced with similar challenges, and there are opportunities to create solutions that impact the majority.

On the flip side of every problem is an opportunity for tomorrow’s greatness. All you need to do is take a look around you. The region’s gaps in food supply, transport, healthcare, financial inclusion, or even ease of trade, all offer opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. From farming to healthcare to logistics and communication, solving very real problems with solutions powered by technology is the billion-dollar dream that will unleash the Africa of the future.

So what will take?

It will take innovation, technology and a clear understanding of Africa’s needs. Harnessing the potential that Africa offers while solving very real problems requires thinking differently about the problems; thinking globally while acting locally.

The notion of “The Next Billion Users” is built on the premise that of the 7 billion people that exist on the planet today, only about 3 billion are connected. There are still 4 billion people that do not have access to the Internet, and these people will come from emerging markets like Africa. The needs and preferences of these users are different from those in more mature markets. Realities such as unreliable infrastructure (including power and broadband), high cost of data and smartphones, etc., impact user behaviour. Understanding these factors and building products and solutions to cater for these users with these factors in mind presents an immense opportunity to scale and deliver immense value.

Design from the ground up
Some developers come up with a solution and then try to imagine the problem it might solve. This seldom works. The billion dollar idea will come from understanding local problems, meeting local needs, speaking the local language and creating real value to people on the ground. Solve a problem and you’re halfway there.

Design for rugged, rough and ready usage
The reality in this environment is low bandwidth, unreliable connections, power outages and a high percentage of phones with low storage capacity. Cracking solutions for this audience means keeping it light and rugged, ensuring your solution doesn’t break when there’s a power or connection drop. Google has been innovating specifically for this region with these factors in mind, and have developed apps that can work offline and require less bandwidth. Examples include Google Go, Maps Go, YouTube Go, Datally and Files by Google.

Design for mobile
Africa is a mobile-first and, in some cases, a mobile-only region. There are over 350 million mobile phone users, and most people are having their internet experience entirely on mobile. A solution geared toward the masses needs to be mobile.

Design with simplicity in mind
Keep it simple and easy to use. Many of your users might not be tech-savvy, but they are certainly eager to have their problems solved. In a region where illiteracy is still rampant, solutions that leverage voice assisted technologies could be especially effective.

Iterate
Learn from mistakes, leverage networks and communities of learning, and collaborate. Failures and challenges provide huge opportunities for learning. Don’t be put off by the setbacks. Most successful apps today have gone through many iterations. Iterate and move on. Get relevant, get better, get bigger.

The Next Billion Users will come from an explosion of technological breakthrough in emerging markets, and if you want to be a change agent in this new playground, then you’re going to have to think differently about how you impact the world.

Be inspired and spot the opportunity. Choose to be engaged, involved, and come up with a product or service that solves a real problem and makes people’s lives better.

Dare to think big. Create moon shots. Think globally and act locally. There are great similarities in the challenges faced in communities across Africa. A solution being developed for a particular community has the potential to be applied to a larger user base. 10X that idea. Think about ways to apply it not just to your community but to the country, and the region.

Take action. As we think about building solutions for the next billion users, it is important to take small simple steps, incorporating the above principles. It’s about applying creativity and rigour to solving real problems and creating value. The Next Billion Users shouldn’t just be consumers but change makers, shaping the trend and the direction of the future.

The next billion-dollar idea is going to come from Africa, and it just might be yours.

Juliet Ehimuan is Country Director at Google leading Google’s business strategy in W/Africa and Next Billion Users initiative in Africa. Named Forbes top 20 power women in Africa, and featured in BBC Africa Power Women series, Juliet is a thought leader on digital business strategy and leadership. She is the Founder of Beyond Limits Africa, a leadership and organizational capacity building initiative. Links to the stories highlighted in this article can be found online: @jehimuan. Juliet was also featured as a Guardian Woman.

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