The promise of the Big Tech CEO Africa tour is not always what it seems

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Google Sundar Pinchai, Twitter  CEO Jack Dorsey
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Google Sundar Pinchai, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey
Image: Collage
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The visit of Twitter founder/chief executive Jack Dorsey to Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia last month seemed like a watershed moment when it comes to Big Tech CEO visits to African cities.

These visits took off in 2015 with a relatively low-profile visit by Microsoft boss Satya Nadella to Nairobi. But it was the visit of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to Nigeria and Kenya that really got the attention of the world.  In 2017, Google chief executive (now also Alphabet chief) Sundar Pichai made it to Lagos and Jack Ma made it to Nairobi and Kigali, Rwanda. Ma was also in Rwanda and South Africa in 2018. This year, with his Africa Netpreneur Prize, he has been to Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo.

Ma’s visits have a different feel to the Silicon Valley giants, which is unsurprising since he’s retired from Alibaba and supporting his foundation. His visits often involve a meeting with the president or other senior government officials as well as the African entrepreneurs he says he hopes to inspire.

The visits of Zuckerberg and Dorsey in particular have had a rockstar feel with countless selfies with the tech community, the obligatory stop-off at CC Hub in Lagos and more selfies. Back in 2016, Zuckerberg did have a last minute change of plan and went up to Abuja, where he met with president Buhari and, yes, more selfies.

Ultimately, these Africa tours are useful to Big Tech CEOs because each trip gives a nice CSR halo effect while looking into the long-term future of where their consumer-facing businesses will be. With Africa’s fast-growing population and attendant youth bulge, tech companies that are serious about being seamlessly global need to be cognizant of a continent which will account for more than half the world’s population growth by 2050.

And these tours do seem to end up serving some purpose for African countries. Facebook and Google have since each launched accelerator or support programs for local startups. Microsoft has also expanded its developer programs.

It’s not clear what the much smaller Twitter will do in Africa. It doesn’t have significant on-the-ground programs or offices. Twitter is one of the platforms that indirectly upsets some sensitive African leaders as it’s become an outlet for young people to express frustration with leadership. In some cases this has resulted in social media blocks or even total internet shutdowns.

Dorsey declared he’s moving to “Africa” for three to six months next year, but it’s not clear what or where that means, yet.

In fact, it might not be about Twitter at all. Dorsey is also founder and chief executive of Square, a fintech payments company. He should perhaps spend some time figuring out how Square can get a foothold in the fastest-growing startup sector in Africa and one of the most vibrant in the world.

Dorsey would have noticed in the three countries he visited the budding talent and the huge consumer opportunity with markets that have long been underserved by local banking systems. He might also have figured out, like the other Jack (Ma) wrote of this last African tour, the lack of infrastructure is sometimes the opportunity not necessarily the obstacle.

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