By Charlene Rodrigues “Forget BRIC! Will the Middle East and Africa please stand up?” Amit Vyas is a hungry, articulate CEO at Digitalnexa, with an indomitable spirit for championing the Middle East and North Africa tech start-up scene. [caption id="attachment_2039" align="alignright" width="150"]Charlene Rodrigues Charlene Rodrigues[/caption]
Like Vyas, several attendees to Southwest (SXSW), in Austin, Texas, hail from Middle East, Africa, South Korea and Brazil. The film, music and interactive hotspot, once popular with Silicon Valley start-ups is now seeing an international shift in audiences, according to recent reports.
So, why such a dramatic turn to a place that was once dismissed as - The ‘Hopeless continent’, and called  ‘African woes – coups, conflict and corruption’, ‘Sierra Leone – The third world’, ‘The agony of Africa’, and so on. Looking at Saudi Arabia and North Africa to expand his presence in 2014, Vyas passionately talks about his vision and potential for the region: “There is no doubt this place is ripe for growth. Not just in North Africa, where post-Arab spring and increased political stability will lead to economic growth, but also in other parts of Africa that have a huge population of people about to enter the workforce.” For a continent that bypassed the laptop and desktop revolutions, it is interesting to see how many Africans embraced and gave ‘Mobile first’ a new meaning.  “The demand for mobile is higher than any other part of the world – 200% in the Middle East and 80% in Africa,” he says. He is positive about the future of the tech scene in the Middle East and North Africa, stressing the high adoption of social media particularly in countries such as South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “As a result of mobile influx, another thing that took off is the Kenyan money-transfer and micro financing service M-Pesa which cracked a problem no western company could solve; how to easily transfer money between users who don’t have access to a bank branch or the internet,” said Vyas. Similarly, the demand for mobiles has transformed the way people do their mobile banking, e-commerce, and health, so much so it’s unthinkable in the West.  With increased connectivity and smart phones, Africa's youth are keen to drive the next generation technology advancements in the form of apps that meets all their local needs - from business, shopping and networking to the way they consume multimedia. According to Arabnet, (regional hub for digital professionals) - online shopping didn’t really exist until 2010. Today, online shopping in the Middle East and North Africa is estimated at £600 million, and online transactions (including flights, hotels, etc.) more broadly have reached £9 billion. Abimbola Bode-Oloaba, Broadcast Journalist, Continental Broadcasting in Lagos, Nigeria said, ‘If you go down to Nigeria they have their own CCHub of app developers, producing affordable tech relevant to the needs of the locals.” Emerging start-ups are optimistic about the regional growth, however local entrepreneurs and foreign investors and large corporations planning to invest gather it’s not a bed of roses; highlighting broadband connectivity issues and a huge divide between government locals and private corporations. The Middle East start-up fever on the other hand is gaining momentum despite being riddled with instable political environments. BBC World Africa editor, Solomon Mugera said, “As with all positive changes to a thriving economy, indigenous problems are always hard to ignore. Africa is not exempt from such difficulties.” Mugera adds infrastructure shortcomings, corruption and lack of research for foreign companies as some of the key issues, and stresses much lies in working with the locals to address these problems. However, he is confident these challenges can be overcome slowly. In recent times, researchers and technologists that have ventured into Africa and worked with the locals believe talent is abundant and with the right resources and support, people will deliver. In the meanwhile, given the current circumstances, there is no straight-forward answer on whether the next Steve Jobs could emerge from Africa or Middle East in the imminent future. While some are positive, Vyas says it’s too early to comment, “I’m not sure about that but with the right political support for entrepreneurs, better infrastructure and a huge population, the ingredients are certainly there for that to happen in the next 20 years.” If you think the next Steve Jobs could come from Middle East or Africa, let us know why @WE_UK. Charlene Rodrigues (@Piccolinanne) is a broadcast producer at Waggener Edstrom Communications based in the UK.