October 8, 2018

African Moonshot Entrepreneurs: How Can Africa Produce More Elon Musks?

“Moonshot” by Rob Schwager. Photo: robschwager.com (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 US)

I was honored to be selected as an Entrepreneur-In-Residence (EIR) for the September–October 2018 Singularity University Incubator. SU Ventures offers the opportunity for seasoned entrepreneurs to put their skills and lessons learned to use, helping to support the next generation of impact founders. The EIRs are tasked with meeting teams and founders where they are, poking holes and providing guidance where the founders need it most. EIRs support and guide the next generation of impact entrepreneurs and future Singularity University company founders through the SU Incubator. The ideal SU Incubator participant to be guided by the EIR is an individual or cofounder pair ready to immerse themselves in an intensive program designed to transform their moonshot idea into a viable startup. The ideas and idea-stage startups that enter the Incubator should be clearly aligned with the mission of Singularity University; that is, the founders/individuals plan to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.

I was not able to participate as an EIR this time around due to unavoidable circumstances but I still hope to participate in the near future. However, whilst planning to attend, the process got me thinking about Africa’s position in the adoption of moonshot thinking.

So just what is a moonshot idea?

Google’s definition of a moonshot is a project or proposal that:

  • Addresses a huge problem
  • Proposes a radical solution
  • Uses breakthrough technology

The term “moonshot” derives from the Apollo 11 spaceflight project, which landed the first human on the moon in 1969. “Moonshot” may also reference the earlier phrase “shoot for the moon” meaning aim for a lofty target according to WhatIs.

Astro Teller, Head of X, formally Google X, defines a moonshot as going 10x bigger, while the rest of the world is trying to grow 10 percent.

This video captures well what Moonshot Thinking is:

Why do moonshots matter?

As Astro described it, there are three principal reasons:

  • When you try and do something radically hard, you approach the problem differently. The goal of 10x improvement forces you to throw out old problems and brainstorm something radically new.
  • Forcing yourself to write down crazy ideas will allow you to ideate convergences and breakthroughs you wouldn’t have normally made. It unshackles you.
  • Aiming for something that is 10x better versus 10 percent better is 100 times more worth it… but never 100 times harder.

How can Africa take moonshots?

The UN projects that Africa will be home to 4 billion people by the end of this century. The population explosion threatens to strain and maybe snap the continent’s already scarce reserve of resources. But even more concerning is the fact that Africa will have the world’s largest workforce—larger than that of either China or India—by 2035. Moonshot ideas may be the best solutions to the problems that arise from Africa’s projected (and current) overpopulation and underemployment.

From my thinking, the questions that arise are:

  • How can Africa produce more Elon Musks on the African continent?
  • What can Africa do right going forward?
  • What lessons can Africa learn from the already established moonshot ideas?
  • How can Africa tap into its youthful population of 1 billion people to produce world-class innovators and entrepreneurs?
  • How can the continent fund moonshot ideas? Who will do it?

Proposed solutions from my research

  • Improve education. Africa needs more classrooms that teach the youth to have big and bold ideas. The current education system does not allow much of this, but it should.
  • African corporations should endeavor to build moonshot factories where innovators can innovate and create freely with the right support.
  • Africans should learn from the failures and successes of the likes of Google X and others. That includes incorporating tactics such as rapid prototyping and making iterations based on feedback from early tests. Allowing teams to fail is another great lesson that will encourage experimentation and risk-taking by innovators.
  • Funders and investors need to believe in African youth and give them opportunities to innovate. Philanthropy by rich Africans could give the funding pool a major boost. Governments should also provide an enabling environment for investors and education that will encourage big thinking.
  • African youth need to believe in themselves more and be confident that they do not have to be in the Silicon Valley to pull off their moonshot ideas.

“Creating abundance is not about creating a life of luxury for everybody on this planet; it’s about creating a life of possibility.”—Peter Diamandis, Co-founder, Singularity University

Please feel free to join the conversation by adding to this list of what would enable Africa to encourage moonshot thinking and give examples of anything happening to this effect on the continent right now.

Resources for more information

  1. What Is Moonshot Thinking? youtube
  2. What Is a Moonshot? – Peter Diamondis / tumblr
  3. The unexpected benefit of celebrating failure | Astro Teller youtube
  4. Power of Moonshot Thinking According to Elon Musk youtube
  5. How to Invent Radical Solutions to Huge Problems: A Guide to Moonshot Thinking – Alison E. Berman / Medium
  6. How to unlock the talents of young Africans – Fred Swaniker / gatesnotes
  7. Classified: Organizational Moonshots course challenges students to think big and bold – Krysten Crawford / BerkeleyHaas
  8. Why corporates should build a moonshot factory, by Astro Teller / summary at coliniles.com
  9. Google[x] Head Astro Teller Says Moonshots Are All About Embracing Failure – Sarah Buhr / Tech Crunch
  10. Google X and the Science of Radical Creativity: How the secretive Silicon Valley lab is trying to resurrect the lost art of invention – Derek Thompson / The Atlantic

About the Author

Sylvia Mukasa is a Contributing Editor at Engineering for Change and the CEO and Founder of GlobalX Investments Ltd, an IT  and telecommunications consulting firm in Nairobi, Kenya. Ms. Mukasa has been a Next Einstein Forum Ambassador, a TechWomen Fellow, and the Kenya Chapter Lead/Country Co-Founder and Operations Board Member for Women in Tech Africa.

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