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XL Africa: Accelerating Africa’s Digital Start-Ups

MD Staff

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Chika Uwazie, 29, is the dynamic and successful founder of a company providing payroll solutions to Nigerian businesses. She is one of 20 top African digital start-ups supported by the World Bank Group through its XL Africa acceleration program.

A pan-African pilot program, XL Africa’s objective is to scale up high-growth digital start-ups that are providing services and generating revenue while creating employment. The program aims to help businesses attract capital between $250,000 and $1.5 million. It culminated in a two-week residency in Cape Town, South Africa, where entrepreneurs pitched their business concepts to investors following intense mentorship and support on getting investment-ready. Coming from eight different countries, they provide services including solar energy, event planning, printing, and agriculture data via drones.

“Being here, pitching to investors has been very helpful. I could never have got this exposure. It’s hard to be in a room full of investors interested in investing in Africa,” said Uwazie. “But what we need are people who will help us open doors, mentors who understand how Nigeria works.”

Uwazie said it was helpful to spend time with her peers, Africa’s crème de la crème of start-ups, who went through a rigorous selection process from over 900 applicants to be chosen for the XL Africa program.

She founded her company, TalentBase, whose motto is “bringing payroll online across Africa” after working in human resources for 10 years and says providing a software solution in this sector was a natural progression. Next, Uwazie plans to take TalentBase to other countries such as Kenya and Ghana.

Paul Noumba Um, World Bank country director for southern Africa, said XL Africa showed that scaling up Africa’s top start-ups was a worthwhile project which needs continued support.

“What I saw here is really exciting. These are companies that are already running and solving problems in Africa and helping consumers and businesses to be more efficient. For instance, if you are in Nigeria, there’s Rensource, which offers affordable electricity supply, and a company can run without having to worry about investing in back-up generators,” he said. “It’s great to see the World Bank Group develop a platform such as XL Africa for identifying and nurturing innovative and disruptive start-ups, but we need to continue building national and regional ecosystems to multiply these successes.”

In designing XL Africa, the World Bank Group elected to target the investment readiness of the top digital firms that were poised for scaling through custom mentorship and direct access to investors, a need unmet by many existing accelerators on the continent. Sourcing experienced local mentors for the program was especially difficult and is among the elements of Africa’s entrepreneurship ecosystems that need further strengthening for future generations of pan-African programming to be successful, said Natasha Kapil, World Bank senior private sector specialist.

Down the hall from the young entrepreneurs’ pitch session were policymakers, donors, and investors in a forum exchanging ideas about what was required to scale high-growth start-ups like the ones in the XL Africa program. They discussed how providing support to entrepreneurs could be done more effectively, asking whether acceleration was a panacea to solving problems experienced by start-ups and whether the model used in the XL Africa program, which worked well with digital start-ups, could do the same for other sectors.

Tony Elumelu Foundation CEO Parminder Vir highlighted the importance of empathy. She said there was a need for investors to become mentors to start-ups to learn about their reality, as this would enable investors to better empathize with the entrepreneurs while bringing their business acumen to the creativity offered by the entrepreneurs. She urged investors to “take a risk and invest in Africa’s talent.”

Vir said it was critical to utilize well-tested African models that are successful and combine them with Western models to build “a truly African ecosystem by Africans. Let’s develop models from Africa. Let’s get African capital to work for Africa.”

She also said governments had a critical role in creating enabling environments for entrepreneurs, citing Rwanda, Tanzania, and South Africa as some of the countries in Africa with the most developed ecosystems, but still needing their governments to address basic internet access issues.

Also speaking at the forum was Hugues Vincent-Genod, senior investment officer at Investisseurs and Partenaires, an investment group with 50 years of investing, mostly in West Africa. He said their challenge was working with entrepreneurs who were not investment-ready. “Most important is providing seed finance and letting those who fade do, as this is what helps to pick the winners, who will create jobs,” he said. Vincent-Genod also said donors had a critical role to play in de-risking investment in the early stages of technology start-ups.

Klaus Tilmes, World Bank Group director of the Trade & Competitiveness Global Practice, said, “As donors, we need to focus on scalable models supporting innovation and digital entrepreneurs that are attractive to angel and venture investors.” He said Africa was mature enough to create its own models that included local investors, adding that it was important to leverage government support and to have continuous collaboration with partners that show accountability.

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Science & Technology

Are robots sexist? UN report shows gender bias in talking digital tech

MD Staff

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Two schoolgirls make use of classroom computers at San Jose, a rural secondary school in La Ceja del Tambo, Antioquia, Colombia. Photo: World Bank/Charlotte Kesl

Why do most voice assistants have female names, and why do they have submissive personalities? The answer, says a new report released on Friday by UNESCO, the UN’s Education, Science and Culture agency, is that there are hardly any women working in the technical teams that develop these services and other cutting-edge digital tools.

The publication, produced in collaboration with the Germany Government and the EQUALS Skills Coalition – an alliance of public and private sector partners which encourages the involvement of women and girls in scientific and digital technology sectors – is called “I’d Blush If I Could.”

The title is a reference to the standard answer given by the default female-voice of Apple’s digital assistant, Siri, in response to insults from users. Apart from Siri, other “female” voice assistants also express submissive traits, an expression of the gender bias built in to Artificial Intelligence (AI) products as a result of what UNESCO calls the “stark gender-imbalances in skills, education and the technology sector.”

Several recommendations are made in the study, including advice to stop making digital assistants female by default; programming them to discourage gender-based insults and abusive language; and developing the advanced technical skills of women and girls so they can steer the creation of new technologies alongside men.

Given the explosive growth of voice assistants, says the report, there is an urgent necessity to help more women and girls cultivate strong digital skills.

Bridging the digital gender gap is an issue for all countries

Today, women are extremely under-represented in teams developing AI tools: women make up only 12 percent of AI researchers, six percent of software developers, and are 13 times less likely to file ICT (information and communication technology) patents.

“Obedient and obliging machines that pretend to be women are entering our homes, cars and offices,” says Saniye Gülser Corat, Director of Gender Equality at UNESCO. “Their hardwired subservience influences how people speak to female voices and models how women respond to requests and express themselves. To change course, we need to pay much closer attention to how, when and whether AI technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them.”

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Organisations that embed cybersecurity into their business strategy outperform their peers

MD Staff

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Organisations that take a business-driven cybersecurity approach to their digital initiatives achieve better outcomes and outperform their peers, according to PwC’s May 2019 Digital Trust Insights Survey.

The global survey of more than 3,000 executives and IT professionals worldwide found that the top 25% of all respondents – market leaders known as “trailblazers” – are not only leading the way on cybersecurity but also delivering more value and better business outcomes.

Among respondents who say growing revenue is the top value sought from digital transformation efforts, nearly nine in 10 trailblazers say they are getting a payoff that meets or exceeds their expectations (compared to 66% of the other respondents).

Trailblazers are also significantly more optimistic about the potential growth in revenue and profit margin for their companies, with 57% percent expecting revenue to grow by 5% or more, and 53% expecting profit margin to grow by 5% or more.

The survey revealed key demographic information about trailblazers. Many are large companies; 38% of respondents from companies worth at least US$1 billion are trailblazers. The financial services (FS) industry and the technology, media, and telecommunications (TMT) sector are particularly well represented in the leader group. Thirty-three percent of FS respondents and 30% of TMT respondents are trailblazers, compared to roughly a quarter of the survey base in other industries.

Geographically, just 21% of EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) respondents are trailblazers, compared to 30% in the Americas, and 30% in Asia Pacific.

The leading behaviours that set trailblazers apart from their corporate peers include aligning their  business and cybersecurity strategies, taking a risk-based approach, and coordinating their teams that manage risk. Key findings from PwC’s Digital Trust Insights survey illustrate the edge that trailblazers maintain in all three areas:

Connected on strategy: 65% of trailblazers strongly agree their cybersecurity team is embedded in the business, conversant in the organisation’s business strategy and has a cybersecurity strategy that supports business imperatives (vs. 15% of others)
 

Connected on a risk-based approach: 89% of trailblazers say their cybersecurity teams are consistently involved in managing the risks inherent in the organisation’s business transformation or digital initiatives (vs. 41% of others)

Coordinated in execution: 77% percent of trailblazers strongly agree their cybersecurity team has sufficient interaction with senior leaders to develop an understanding of the company’s risk appetite around core business practices (vs. 22% of others)

“By focusing on building digital trust, trailblazers are driving more proactive, pre-emptive and responsive actions to embed these strategies into the business, as opposed to their peers who primarily look to minimise the operational impacts of cyber threats in reactive manner,” comments TR Kane, PwC US Strategy, Transformation & Risk Leader.

More than eight in 10 trailblazers say they have anticipated a new cyber risk to digital initiatives and managed it before it affected their partners or customers (compared to six in 10 of others).

“Organisations that take a proactive approach to cybersecurity and embed it into every corporate action will be best placed to deliver the advantages of digital transformation, manage related risks and build trust,” adds Grant Waterfall, EMEA Cybersecurity and Privacy Leader, PwC UK.

“Our research highlights the need for organisations to embed their cybersecurity teams within the business to support strategic goals. It’s not just about protecting assets – it’s about being a strategic partner in the organisation,” adds Paul O’Rourke, Asia Pacific Cybersecurity and Privacy Leader, PwC Australia.

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Business in Need of Cyber Rules

Anastasia Tolstukhina

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For more than 20 years, countries have been struggling to introduce a set of rules of conduct and liability requirements for digital space users. Progress in designing a code of cyber conduct is all the more relevant since digitalization is sweeping the planet at breakneck speed, creating new risks along with new opportunities. Businesses that are confronted with new challenges and threats in the digital space are putting forward their own initiatives, thereby pressing governments to speed up the process of adopting an international cyber code.

Why is the business community interested in setting rules in the cyber environment? There are many reasons for this.

Firstly, the quantity and quality of hacker attacks on the private sector increase every year. Hackers target any enterprises — whether they are small enterprises or technological giants. Attacked by the NotPetya virus, the world largest container carrier Maersk sustained $300 million damage and had to shell out nearly $1 billion for restoration. In total, according to Sberbank’s estimates, the damage to the global economy from hacker attacks in 2019 can reach about $2.5 trillion, and by 2022 — as much as $8–10 trillion.

Secondly, many technology-oriented companies, facing a lack of trust on the part of government agencies, experience severe difficulties in promoting their business projects abroad. At present, the UK, Norway, Poland, and other countries are involved in a debate about whether Huawei should be allowed to build fifth-generation mobile communication networks (5G). Huawei is suspected of stealing intellectual property and espionage. The US, Australia, New Zealand have introduced a ban on the use of 5G equipment from Huawei.

Not only Chinese companies face distrust. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Kaspersky Lab, and many others are often accused of illegally spying on people.

Thirdly, IT companies are forced to pay huge sums to protect their customers against hacker attacks and guarantee information security. Microsoft allocates more than $1 billion for this purpose yearly.

In the absence of a political solution to ensure international information security, private companies, which are keen to safeguard themselves and their customers, have chosen to conduct negotiations with each other on information security cooperation and are launching their own initiatives. Thus, coming into existence is a business information security track running parallel to the government.

In February 2017, Microsoft’s President Brad Smith launched the Digital Geneva Convention initiative. The Convention is expected to oblige governments not to take cyber attacks on private sector companies or the critical infrastructure of other states, and not to use hacker attacks to steal intellectual property.

Overall, the document formulates six basic principles of international cybersecurity:

  1. No targeting of tech companies, private sector, or critical infrastructure.
  2. Assist private sector efforts to detect, contain, respond to, and recover from events.
  3. Report vulnerabilities to vendors rather than to stockpile, sell, or exploit them.
  4. Exercise restraint in developing cyber weapons and ensure that any developed are limited, precise, and not reusable.
  5. Commit to non-proliferation activities to cyber weapons.
  6. Limit offensive operation to avoid a mass event.

However, while the Digital Geneva Convention is still on paper, 34 technology companies, including Microsoft, without waiting for decisions at the government level, signed the Cybersecurity Tech Accord in April 2018. Thus, the largest ever group of companies have become committed to protecting customers around the world from cybercriminals.

Cybersecurity Tech Accord members have called for a ban on any agreements on non-disclosure of vulnerabilities between governments and contractors, brokers, or cybersecurity experts; they also call for more funding for vulnerability detection and research.

Besides, signatories of the agreement have come up with a series of recommendations to strengthen confidence-building measures, which are based on the proposals of the UN and OSCE.

Such measures include:

-Develop shared positions and interpretations of key cybersecurity issues and concepts, which will facilitate productive dialogue and enhance mutual understanding of cyberspace and its characteristics.

-Encourage governments to develop and engage in dialogue around cyber warfare doctrines.

-Develop a list of facilities that are off-limits for cyber-attacks, such as nuclear power plants, air traffic control systems, banking sectors, and so forth.

-Establish mechanisms and channels of communication to respond to requests for assistance by another state whose critical infrastructure is subject to malicious ICT acts (organizing, i.e. tabletop exercises).

By now, Cybersecurity Tech Accord has been signed by 90 companies, including Microsoft, Facebook, Cisco, Panasonic, Dell, Hitachi, and others.

Another initiative was presented in 2018 by Siemens, which came up with the Charter of Trust. The Charter, which was signed by 16 companies, including IBM, AIRBUS, NXP, and Total, urges companies to set up strict rules and standards to foster trust in ICT and contribute to further development of digitalization.

Facebook has become part of the process too. In late March 2019, Mark Zuckerberg — the founder and CEO of Facebook — urged governments to become more actively involved in regulating the Internet. In particular, Zuckerberg spoke in favor of introducing new standards related to the Internet and social networks. These standards would come useful to guarantee the protection of personal data, prevent attempts to influence elections or disseminate unwanted information, and would assist in providing a solution to the problem of data portability.

Another initiative worth mentioning is the creation in 2014 of the Industrial Internet Consortium TM, IIC, which was founded on the initiative of AT & T, Cisco, GE, IBM, and Intel. This is a non-profit open-membership group that seeks to remove barriers between different technologies in order to maximize access to big data and promote the integration of physical and digital environment.

Some initiatives are coming from the Russian private sector. In particular, since 2017, Norilsk Nickel has been active on the international scene promoting the Information Security Charter of critical industrial facilities. The Charter’s main provisions include condemnation of the use of ICT for criminal, terrorist, military purposes; supporting efforts to create warning and detection systems, and assist in the aftermath of network attacks; and sharing best practices in information security.

In turn, Sberbank has launched an initiative to hold the world’s largest International Cybersecurity Congress. Last year, such a congress took place with the participation of 681 companies from 51 countries. The second such Congress is scheduled for this June. The Forum serves as an inter-sectoral platform that promotes global dialogue on the most pressing issues of ensuring information security in the context of globalization and digitalization.

Most business initiatives hinge on the fact that they all call for developing confidence-building measures and rules of conduct in the digital space. Besides, the business community welcomes the need to adjust international law to the new realities of the digital economy.

Private sector initiatives can perfectly be streamlined with initiatives put forward by countries within the framework of the UN. After all, by and large, governments pursue the same goals as business in this area. The use of ICT for peaceful purposes, confidence-building measures, the supply of information about vulnerabilities — all this is significant both for business and for most states.

Fortunately, the global discussion under the aegis of the UN on issues related to International Information Security is getting back on track after a pause of about one year. From now on, it will be attended by representatives of the private sector. According to the resolution (A/RES/73/27), the mandate of the future Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) allows for the possibility of holding inter-session consultative meetings with representatives of businesses, non-governmental organizations and the scientific community to exchange opinions on issues within the group’s mandate. The first inter-sessional meeting with representatives of global business is scheduled for November 2019.

In conclusion, we would like to remark that the issue of information security is dynamic and for this reason, it can be adequately addressed only with the close cooperation of governments and technology companies, since it is the latter that keep pace with the development of technologies and are the drivers of the digital economy. Governments should keep a close eye on the initiatives of non-state actors and put the most useful proposals on the agenda of discussions at international forums. Moreover, once adopted and approved at the government level, these standards and regulations should have a legal force, rather than be recommendatory — this is the only way to guarantee the order in the cyber environment.

First published in our partner RIAC

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