Startups eye metaverse, NFTs, to solve Africa’s economic woes

  • Startups target unemployment and governance issues
  • Founders launch virtual African nation, marketplace
  • Critics fear replication of continent’s inequalities

By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG, July 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It might sound like science fiction, but a Nigerian-born tech entrepreneur thinks he has found a way for Africans to escape problems like inequality and bad governance – a virtual nation born online.

His is among a number of African-led virtual projects that aim to help the world’s poorest continent capitalise on digital growth and tackle real-world problems, though some tech experts said such online spaces risk replicating offline inequalities.

“There’s so many things that limit us as Africans from real-world opportunities,” said Emole, co-founder of the Afropolitan network state project.

“(The internet) is the only place in the world which serves as an equaliser.”

The development of the metaverse – a shared online environment where people can meet, buy virtual goods, and attend events – has sparked concern over digital rights, privacy and online inequality.

“What happens to a grandma in rural South Africa with no internet connection?” asked Thami Nkosi, an activist and researcher at South African non-profit Right2Know, which works to improve access to public information.

“We don’t have broadband, internet, electricity, so who will benefit from this?”

But some researchers and activists think that as mobile phones and internet connection become more widespread across the continent it will open up opportunities, and have stressed the need for products that are geared towards African needs.

The emerging virtual economy already includes some 2.5 billion people and generates billions of dollars each year, according to a report by market research company L’Atelier.