Arriving in Africa for the first time, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg praised the continent’s renowned innovative spirit.
"This is where the future is going to be built," he said in Lagos, Nigeria, last week, during his first stop on a trip that also took him to Kenya.
"The thing that is striking is the entrepreneurial energy. I think when you’re trying to build something, what matters the most is who wants it the most."
Zuckerberg’s surprise trip generated enormous news for the continent’s renowned entrepreneurial spirit — as you’d expect when the sixth-richest man and the most high-profile tech figure visits.
In Lagos, he popped into the Co-Creation Hub shared workspace, walked the streets of Yaba — considered Lagos’s Silicon Valley — and expressed his enthusiasm for Nollywood, Nigeria’s large film industry.
"Nollywood is good at building content," he told an audience of developers. "Only an engineer would call it ‘building content’, but that’s who I am," he joked.
In Nairobi, he visited the iHub, arguably the most famous of Africa’s innovation hubs, where mobile transactions are perhaps the most sophisticated anywhere in the world.
"It’s inspiring to see how engineers here are using mobile money to build businesses and help their community," he said, before making his way to Gearbox, iHub’s offshoot "makerspace" (a hub for digital invention and learning).
But one of the cornerstones of Zuckerberg’s trip — and no doubt arranged to coincide with it — was the launch of an Eutelsat satellite, designed to "beam down connectivity".
The satellite is part of Facebook’s plan to deliver Internet connectivity to the remote areas of our very large continent using its recently flown Aquila drones.
"We built these solar-powered drones that are basically like a cellphone tower in the sky.
"They can go over really remote rural locations and beam down connectivity to make sure networks spread and reach everyone," a beaming Zuckerberg said.
But, fatefully, one day later, the Amos-6 satellite — which is estimated to be worth US$200m — was destroyed when the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that would have carried it into space exploded during a preflight test in Cape Canaveral.
There was another, unfortunate, African connection: SpaceX is the brainchild of SA-born Elon Musk.
This prompted an amusing online tiff as the two tech titans traded thinly veiled insults.
But the fundamental thinking around the satellite’s role is good.
"Here in Lagos and across the continent things are really shifting. They are moving from a resource-based economy, shifting to an entrepreneurial, knowledge-based economy," Zuckerberg said.
The satellite — which is conceivably going to be rebuilt — is the first part of Facebook’s plan to get Internet access, including via the drones, to the parts of the world it currently doesn’t reach.
The second part, he says, is to "make it affordable so people can use it, [including] building it cheaper so it costs less [and teaching] app developers to use less data".
The latter is the controversial, slimmed-down Free Basics version of Facebook that is designed to work on feature phones.
The third component is "making people understand what the Internet can do". Exposing people to the Internet gives them an idea of how it can make their lives better.
Zuckerberg is essentially saying that Facebook wants to start first-timers off with Free Basics by giving them a taste of the power of connectivity. Later they will gladly evolve — and be willing to pay — for the full experience.
Say what you want about Zuckerberg — his vision to get everyone online can’t be a bad thing, even if it starts in the walled garden that Facebook is. His visits to Nigeria and Kenya have deservedly given African entrepreneurs another moment in the global news spotlight.