The face of Africa is changing and the world is beginning to notice. Implementing world-class technology has been the ambition of many African countries since their independence. Today, this ambition is becoming a reality in specific technological niches and in the future even more fundamental developments can be foreseen. 
Developed countries are subject to strong technological lock-ins, such as communication through copper wires, Internet access with desktop computers, car-intensive transport infrastructures and centralised systems of energy production.
Many less and least developed countries are not subject to these limitations, offering them the opportunity for leapfrogging. Landline telephones, still widespread in developed countries, are skipped in the evolution of telecoms sectors in less developed countries.
For many applications, the desktop will be skipped as smart phones and similar consumer gadgets provide Internet access. The possibility of installing the latest generation of technology from scratch offers many opportunities, and the reports and spreadsheets offer just a glimpse of the changes in the streets of Nairobi or Lagos.
The installation of a containerised classroom of computers in rural Ghana is reported in the same manner as the massive leaps in connectivity that Africa is undergoing. The first affects the lives of a small community and requires an investment of several thousand US dollars,the second affects the lives of the majority on the continent and requires an investment of several hundred million US dollars.
However, a picture of a group of children sitting behind a computer, or better even, smiling and waving at the camera, is much easier to publish than one of a cable and a dark bungalow of transmitters.
Africa has never been closer to the rest of the world, including Europe. The continent is a phone call, an e-mail, a click on Facebook or a direct flight away from Europe. This proximity offers opportunities, especially as one of the biggest problems facing development in Africa is being done away with: the lack of interconnectivity.
Until recently, more than 70% of Internet traffic within Africa was routed outside the continent, driving up costs for business and consumers. From 2002 until 2009, sub-Saharan Africa’s only data cable was the SAT3/SAFE fibre-optic cable. Now, with Seacom and EASSy, the continent’s penetration rates are likely to converge with the saturated levels of the developed world today in a relatively short space of time.
At a regional and local level, the current improvement largely comes from combining the existing GSM infrastructure with fibre-optic cable backbones.
Beyond their range, technological innovations increase the range of wireless last-mile data solutions, such as WiFi and WiMax, effectively creating last-50-mile solutions. Once a settlement has access, innovative options for extending the surrounding area of coverage abound.
A simple yet efficient technology to extend range can be found in mesh networks. Each unit in such a network, for example a GSM site or a laptop, connects to each other unit within its range, creating a Web of connected sites or computers.
Now, if one of the units has data access, all other units can make indirect use of that connection. In this way even relatively isolated GSM sites can be connected, albeit at lower capacity.
As bandwidth prices continue to drop and similar developments increase Africans’ access to Internet connectivity, two megatrends are already emerging that will change the face of Africa for ever. First, mobile money will change the economy. Second, geo-location applications will revolutionise addressing, navigation, tracking and tracing – and business.
Gathering and sharing information, as well as co-ordinating activities across large distances, were cumbersome processes before the emergence of a modern ICT infrastructure. But they are also crucial to almost any economic and social activity. Speeding up these processes from taking weeks and months to only hours and minutes has a profound impact on productivity and the kind of activities that can be exploited.
Understanding, reflecting on and embedding these technological changes and their consequences in African societies will change how a new generation of Africans see technology, fostering new ideas that can be shared, shaped and incubated by enterprise hubs that bring innovations to the market, and thus transform the African continent from a consumer of technology to a source of ideas, concepts and products.