What the Metaverse holds for Africa’s thriving tech ecosystem

What does the Metaverse hold for Africa's growing tech ecosystem? Startup Lagos

The strangeness of facts

The Metaverse. Like something out of a fictional novel.

Lord Byron in his oeuvre, Don Juan, avers that truth is often stranger than fiction.

The vivid strangeness and nausea of reality are often what hits us blankly in the face when confronted with certain amazing facts of our world. Within this realm of the real, we also realize that our experiences are woven from the fabric of our imaginations. With the speed at which technology is growing, it is indubitable that the thin lines between the elusive world of imagination and the nauseating world of the real are closing up fast.

Arthur C. Clarke in one of his three famous laws bordering on the future of tech, states that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Technological sophistication has raised the boundaries of possibility for the human mind to bring to life, with Clarke’s second law on discovering the limits of the possible only by venturing a little way past them into the impossible, bringing to bear this fact even more vividly.

A short history of the metaverse

There is nothing new under the sun, proclaims Qoheleth the preacher. Who would’ve thought that many years before the 21st century, the outlandish idea of a virtual world would be conceptualized?

Famous American philosopher, Hilary Putnam, in 1981, proposed his famous brain-in-a-vat argument to put forward the hypothetical dilemma between illusion and reality. The scenario that he paints is one where a person is assumedly operated on by an evil scientist. With his brain cut off from his body and placed in a tank containing a nutrient solution to sustain life, the person’s consciousness is connected to a supercomputer. This computer helps in sending across bytes of information to the brain, to elicit normal hallucinations that enable the individual to keep thinking that the objects of his sensual experience exist in reality. Closely similar to Plato’s allegory of the cave, Putnam’s theorizations show forth the absurdity of the real.

While many may have thought Putnam’s assertions to appear ludicrously unreal, the newfound concept of the metaverse, which is taking the social media landscape by storm, presents proof of this astounding reality. The term, ‘metaverse’, originally coined by Neal Stephenson in his seminal 1992 novel, Snow Crash, describes a shared imaginary place that the general public has access to through fiber-optic networks. While in the intersubjective real world, there are basic rules of three-dimensional space-time, in this virtual world of advanced social media, the pressing consequences of matter and space are absent.

The digital wonderland theme of the blockbuster movie, Ready Player One, further exemplifies the concept of the Metaverse, with all spatial and temporal constraints on our physicality being removed, and the digital and virtual worlds becoming a unity. The movie describes in detail the vast possibilities of our world and social media in its concept of the Oasis, a get-away virtual world of players.

Facebook’s Meta

Facebook positions itself for the future with a name change to Meta - Startup Lagos
Facebook positions itself for the future with a name change to Meta. Image credits: Facebook

Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, describes the Metaverse in these grandiose terms, as:

even more immersive and embodied internet, where you’re gonna be able to do almost anything you can imagine–get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create–as well as entirely new categories that don’t really fit how we think about computers or phones today.

To explain this concept of an embodied internet, one can easily picture the fact that unlike on social media platforms, where one is represented by a two-dimensional representation or a username, in the Metaverse, one possesses a customizable avatar that can do basically the same things we humans do in the ‘real’ world. In this real-world of avatars, there would be visible interactions with other avatars, and with the virtual space-time. The coming-to-being of the Metaverse would require the collaboration of policymakers, experts, technology enthusiasts, and industry partners.

In a controversial move by Facebook this month, Zuckerberg has undertaken a name change for the parent company, Facebook, to Meta, to prepare grounds for this new techy future. According to Zuckerberg, the change is in recognition of the gradual but certain change within the company’s essence to the new social media age. It is reckoned that Zuckerberg for some months now into 2021 has been investing billions of dollars in building this virtual space for the global internet.

This name change has come amidst serious backlash by the media and public, following revelations by Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, detailing concerns over users’ mental health, and insensitivity by the company on the state of wellbeing of its users. Zuckerberg has maintained a straight and defiant mien against the onslaught, branding it a ‘coordinated effort’ to ‘paint a false picture of the [our] company’.

Just days after Facebook’s announcement, Microsoft is set to launch its own Metaverse platform, with the company rolling out Mesh for Teams in early 2022. While their platform, Mesh, had been first announced in March and hopes to leverage on the Teams infrastructure to set in motion things that enable collaborative and immersive remote and hybrid meetings. With a lot of people jumping on the new normal bandwagon, remote work has taken the center stage in the world of work today. This, therefore, is one status quo that the Metaverse would realistically champion, with people attending meetings without a physical presence through the use of personalized avatars.

Where is Africa in all of this?

Africa’s markets would be positively impacted by the rise of the Metaverse. Image credits: Business Elites Africa

Africa is one of the fastest-growing consumer markets globally, according to Brookings Institution. With household consumption on the rise, especially in countries like Nigeria, Egypt, and South Africa, the odds of a new technology finding its way into Africa are high. Technology is also vastly changing the face of Africa’s society and economy, with the spiraling growth in tech companies across the continent. More and more people are having access to digital technology, and social media usage is fast becoming a norm on the continent.

As of December 2020, Facebook is reckoned as the most visited site in Africa, with more than 233 million Facebook subscribers in Africa. Through social media, many Africans are able to access economic gains utilizing the platforms for marketing efforts and other creative ventures. As such, the impact of social media on African life is beyond significant. In spite of heavy backlash from governments trying to stifle and control social media, the power of the internet is most visible in Africa through these platforms. Even more significant is the outstanding growth of blockchain-enabled technologies, and crypto use and trading in Africa. Even though Africa but represents about 2% of the global value of crypto trade, making it the world’s smallest cryptocurrency economy, its gradual confidence in a blockchain platform is crystallizing disruption across Africa’s diverse business sectors. With the prevalence of NFTs (Non-fungible tokens) and blockchain infrastructure as well, the Metaverse would easily spread its Spatio-temporal hands into Africa. Africa’s ecosystems are vastly developing, collectively worth over $6.6 billion, with huge investments coming into the continent especially this year.

With the benefit of the Metaverse, business sectors will be set to face even greater disruption. Businesses would leverage these platforms to easily access Africa’s large and diverse consumer market, and offer valuable products and services within the proximity of virtual presence. The platform will also offer new ways of customer engagement, with virtual products estimated to break the global market with the launch of the Metaverse.

Just this October, South Africa witnessed the launch of Africarare, the first African metaverse, spotlighting housing digital land with roots across the African continent. With its NFT collection by renowned local artist, Norman Catherine, the company has sold out its debut art collection of over 52 pieces at a worth of over $53,000 in digital currency. This move by Africarare is proof of the possibilities for growth in the new internet age, that Africa can take advantage of. It also ushers in the new immersive experience of advanced social media for Africa’s tech ecosystem.

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