Living in a Digital World We Can Be Proud of - Ideas and Idealism at WPP's Stream Africa

01/12/2015 01:26 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

Last month, I had the privilege to attend WPP's first Stream Africa event, "The (un)conference for (un)conventional thinkers".

Stream brings together WPP's clients and its digital staff, entrepreneurs, academics and VCs. It is an unmoderated exchange of ideas about our digital future and the future of communications, creativity, business and society. It was fun and inspiring, a unique opportunity to have informal and "out of the box" conversations with thought leaders from various industries.

I used the opportunity to test some assumptions for my firm's new initiatives for Africa in financial services and digital products and services. Goodwell is an emerging markets VC firm focused on impact. Launching a new fund is a long and intense process. For the launch of our digital inclusion initiative we are using a rapid prototyping approach. In a short period of time we are developing the initiative together with our partners and investors.

Stream turned out to be an excellent opportunity to test our ideas and tap into the wisdom of the crowd. This is what I found:

- Sharing is caring: the power of collaboration
The ecosystem for inclusive businesses in Africa is a patchwork with many gaps. Funders, technology partners, community organizations and other stakeholders need to collaborate to fill these gaps. Successful products or services will leverage group dynamics in the community. An exciting example is the Lumkani fire alarm for shacks presented by talented innovator Paul Mesarik. The device triggers a fire alarm in all connected devices to create a community-wide response. It is in everybody's interest to extinguish the fire as soon as possible.

- IP is dead, long live open source
The main value drivers for inclusive businesses are scale and efficiency: providing the best quality at the lowest price to as many people as possible. A sharp contrast with IP based business models that mine an exclusive competitive advantage to extract the highest possible price. Open source innovation delivers quality much faster. The value comes from quick adaptation, efficient execution and distribution at a large scale, using the wisdom of the crowd and giving forward. As early stage impact investors, we look for game changers that have a "ripple effect" in their markets, an idea that clearly resonated with the open source discussions at Stream.

- Know your customer
A truism about the future of marketing is that brands need to become more relevant to survive. But what is "relevant"? What does the customer want and need, and how do we know that? The lack of useful data in this field and the absence of forward research leave huge gaps in our understanding of these markets. Traditional client segmentation doesn't work here. Cultural values and beliefs help to understand customer behavior better, but we still need a lot more research. I led a discussion on what the next billion people coming online in the next few years want and need. Participants contributed a wide range of experiences and predictions about communication, entertainment, access to information and financial services as basic digital needs. New devices and new ways of delivering services ("people as a service") and products (e.g. prepaid solar lamps) and sharing those can improve daily lives and livelihoods, if rolled out responsibly. Responsibly means customer-centric, means knowing what the customer wants and needs. Which we don't; so we need more research. To be continued....

- Culture eats strategy for breakfast
A recurring remark at Stream was that "Africa is not a country". Understanding local culture and market conditions is critical for business success in any international environment, and especially in a diverse continent like Africa. Bottom up innovations tend to replicate better than top down "copy - paste" strategies. Just applying international business models or Silicon Valley templates in the African context doesn't work. What does this mean for business culture in the digital age? Learning by doing, agility and openness to local ideas make replication successful across geographies.

- "Let's have some impact here"
It struck me how much the participants are focused on their impact on society and the planet. As Esther Dyson reported from an earlier Stream event: "They're interested in selling more stuff, but they are also increasingly interested in living in a world they can be proud of." When participating in conferences in the social and development sector, it is tempting to believe that only they can fix the big problems of today and tomorrow. Put a bunch of passionate professionals from across industries together, and what do they talk about: the challenges and opportunities in education, healthcare, energy, agriculture, responsible finance and conservation. There was plenty of idealism and the word "impact" was the word of the event.

At WPP's Stream I became even more of an Afro-optimist than I was before. I am confident that the digital revolution is going to improve the lives of the next billion who aren't online yet and of those that are already. I am excited to contribute to that revolution and cross paths again with other Stream participants as we put our idealism into practice. After an event like Stream, it is difficult to explain the magical experience to colleagues back in the office. Maybe the best way to share the inspiration is to tell the stories that got us excited about living in a digital world we can be proud of.