ARISE 100 Women: Isis Nyong'o

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Words Bim Adewunmi

Isis Nyong’o is vice president and managing director of the world’s largest independent global mobile advertising network, InMobi. Nyong’o, who divides her time between Kenya and the US, shares her expertise and predictions on how technology will shape Africa's future.

What drives you?

I'm mainly motivated by the opportunity to learn and build; to learn about a new idea, build a new skill or deepen my understanding about a subject I'm already familiar with. I think this is primarily why I've been drawn to join either early stage companies – MyJobsEye, InMobi – or teams building a new region in established companies – MTV, Google. I'm also very passionate about Africa in general so being able to build a career here that has spanned media and technology is really beyond any dream I could've had when starting out.

What do you see as the future of Africa?

Africa is at a very unique point in time where the positive but also uneven winds of change on the leadership and socioeconomic front are all pointing to a very bright future.  Technology is going to be key… leading to greater leadership accountability through the proliferation of mobile/digital platforms, [technology will also] be central to how businesses/institutions function and will be instrumental to how the continent innovates. 

On a regional level, Africa's march to a continent where more citizens are living middle-class lives than below the poverty line will be highly dependent on consistently strong leadership in key markets, effective regional agreements and appropriate domestic policies.  The youth bulge will play a significant role in shaping the continent's future as not only will countries need to ensure education/health systems are adequate but also need to think creatively on the job creation front as the current unemployment levels do make the outlook uncertain as to whether this is a youth 'time bomb' or the 'time boost' that will catapult the continent forward.

On a country level, there are clear economic powerhouses today which will likely continue to dominate in the future so what we may see is uneven development where a handful of countries lead the continent far ahead of many others. The pace of development is clear across the continent but uneven.

Why is telecommunications important to the future of Africa?

Africa's telecommunications sector has been an instrumental foundation for the continent's strong economic progress in recent years and will continue to be the backbone of future growth. In less than a decade we've gone from a negligible number of mobile subscribers to an expected 700million by the end of this year. The implication of this large user base for socioeconomic change is nothing short of profound.

This shift of power is set to expand to new levels as access to the internet on mobile devices grows beyond the current 100million to 300million or so in a few years. This means that, for the first time ever, the mass market will be accessible through one medium, which means highly scalable businesses across borders is now possible. Distribution of physical goods across markets in Africa is daunting at best. Since the growth of digital-first businesses will be rapid, it stands to reason that a significant portion of new business and innovation in existing businesses will include some aspect of mobile distribution. Thus the continent's future is intrinsically linked to the telecommunications/mobile industry.

What are the main misconceptions when it comes to women in your industry?

Women who work in the tech sector are typically expected, and understandably so, to be highly technical. While most men and women in this sector are technically inclined – when you consider software and hardware engineers, technicians etc – every business has a need for other skills including sales, marketing, finance and support functions. I make this point mainly as I am not an engineer but a businesswoman who works in tech. I tread carefully on this particular point because I do see women significantly underrepresented in the technical roles within the sector. Women are often in more 'female friendly' functions of marketing, sales and HR and not as often leading the product and engineering teams, which are the bedrock of tech companies. Inclusion of women across all functional areas and throughout all levels of organisations is not a challenge unique to this industry but certainly one that can use a fresh approach to addressing.

What are the challenges to being in the telecommunications industry?

The telecommunications industry in Africa is nearing an inflection point. As the subscriber growth flattens and ARPUs [Average Revenue Per User] drop for telcos [telecommunication companies], who dominate this sector, the future revenue will come from innovation in other services.

While some telcos are ahead of others in rolling out strong data networks and innovating in mobile payments, others are woefully behind, still grappling with basic uptime and service delivery. Disruption in the industry by players who can ride on the core networks is likely to happen soon as consumers demand more services, given the reality of the phone as the most important screen – regardless if it is the first one or not. Building an ecosystem where innovation in the mobile space can thrive, where new value is created by a multitude of players and not stifled by the inertia of telcos will be key. Far easier said than done.

What advice do you have for anyone starting out in the industry?

For those beginning their career in the tech industry, which includes telecommunications, I'd give them three pieces of advice to consider. First; think beyond your immediate border. The next phase of Africa's growth in this sector will be driven by businesses that can scale regionally, whether at the sub-regional or continent-wide levels. Focus on opportunities where you can get depth functionally and breadth geographically.

[Secondly; it is] useful to gain experience in both large and small organizations and a mix of African owned and operated and foreign [companies] as they offer different opportunities along several dimensions… Third; experiment, experiment, experiment. Africa's future is really going to be defined by this sector and the young people building it. Gaining experience in established companies is great but Africa's opportunities are vast and you'd be remiss to approach a career in this industry in a conventional manner. Try different things to find niches that both challenge you and contribute to our continent's future in a meaningful way.

In boardrooms and parliaments, on television and the stage, women are increasingly making their presence felt across Africa and on the world stage. The inaugural ARISE 100 list champions just some of the remarkable women shaping modern Africa today.

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