Africa is the future
Last week, I read the inspiring story of Wande Adalemo, the young Nigerian Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Oxygen Broadband Networks, Nigeria’s first metro WiFi network, who dropped out of school in the process of realizing his dreams of building an Internet company. Today, he sits atop a N1bn broadband network company, which has just rolled out a WiFi network at the popular Computer Village in Lagos.
Such inspiring stories abound all across Africa, a continent that was as recently as ten years ago described by the Economist as hopeless but which today, propelled by the power of the internet and mobile phones is inspiring hope for its people and announcing clearly to the world that we can also do it.
I recall with nostalgia how some years ago when one wants to make a call one had to queue at the few functional NITEL telephone booths. Nigeria in 1999 had less than 500,000 active phone lines. Computers then were a rear sight. Indeed many organizations had what was called the “Computer Room” in which the computers stations were covered up like some treasured works of art, the room heavily air-conditioned and out of bound to everyone. Internet service was dependent on public cyber café’s that were pretty unreliable and expensive.
But all that has changed today. The introduction of GSM services caused a technology revolution in Africa and has positioned Africa as the fastest growing region on Earth for the telecoms industry, and with it has come a recognition among African governments and people that an opportunity exists to leap the development gap through the implementation of technological solutions to some of the challenges facing the continent.
Today, the continent’s one-billion people are coming online and 600 million of us have mobile phones. The GSMA (Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association) has estimated that, in 2009, more than 31 million Nigerians accessed the web, with 30% or more doing so via mobile phones. Indeed African young tech developers are daily churning out new apps and announcing new startups that is changing technology itself and the world is taking notice.
So strong is sms in Africa that recently Google rolled out a new service in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya that lets Gmail users send and receive emails using the built-in SMS features of their mobile phones. This game changing service even takes away the need for mobile internet access and is thus even cheaper to users on the continent. Africa has taught the world that so much can be achieved with text messages from sending e-mails, running social networks or even detecting fake drugs.
I like to mention a few of the startups that bear testimony to the creativity and intellectual ingenuity of Africans and who represent the reasons to believe that Africa is the future.
There is Jobberman.com now unarguably Nigeria’s No1 jobs website, recognized by Forbes as “West Africa’s most popular job search engine and aggregator.” This company founded by the trio of Opeyemi Awoyemi, Ayodeji Adewunmi, and Olalekan Olude, is financially strong and backed by a NY based venture capital firm. It has grown rapidly to about 9 million monthly unique users, with more than 50 Million monthly page views. They connect companies with the best candidates in their respective industries and many job seekers now depend on them for alerts in latest vacancies.
Jobberman recently teamed up with Dymore Vision Consulting, one of Africa’s leading digital media and social innovation firms to launch GAPS Academy an online Learning platform, with over 3,000 free videos for African students to learn online, an effort to build the largest learning platform for Africa by Africans.
There is 2go, one of South Africa’s tech success stories. This seven-person business has gone from startup to profitability in just four years. 2go is a mobile social network targeting users in emerging markets, particularly in Africa. The company has over 21 million registered users with more than 10 million active users in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. Indeed in Nigeria where it has become dominant with over 9 million active users it boasts of several more million more users than facebook. The app provides users a cheap, easy way to chat and socialize using their mobile phones.
Nigerian app developer and entrepreneur Bayo Puddicombe led the team that developed Danfo, Nigeria’s first mobile game app which has now been officially released in the UK, Europe and America. Bayo a graduate of the University of Lagos and fellow of the Fate Institute for Venture Design is arguably one of the most successful young developers in Nigeria.
In 2007 when Kenya erupted in violence in the aftermath of a disputed general election , a group of young techies in Nairobi created
Ushahidi (meaning testimony in Swahili), a data-mapping platform to collate and locate reports of unrest sent in by the public via text message, e mail and social media. Ushahidi has become the world’s default platform for mapping crises, disasters and political upheaval. According to Rotich, by May of 2011, Ushahidi, which is free to download, had been used 14,000 times in 128 countries to map everything from last year’s earthquake in Haiti to this year’s Japanese tsunami and the Arab Spring.
Following the Ushahidi example, tech volunteers in Nigeria in 2010 built ReVoDa which allowed voters to report as independent citizen observers from their respective Polling Units across Nigeria, having registered to map their mobile number, name and polling unit number to specific locations. It also allows voters to receive relevant information about the electoral process from credible sources.
And there are those focused on saving lives too. Tech start up Sproxil is one such. Sproxil has equipped Africans with the ability to fight fake and counterfeit drugs with their mobile phones. The company tags pharmaceutical products in Africa with a scratch-off code (like the code you use to top up a prepaid cell phone). The customer sends the code in a text message to Sproxil’s product authentication service, which verifies if the product is genuine. Recently in August the company signed a deal with Indian telecommunications company Bharti Airtel for the latter to offer its subscribers in 17 African countries free texting for drug verification.
A discussion on Africa’s influence on global technology will not be complete without mentioning its marked influence in mobile banking: with its M Pesa service (M for mobile,pesa meaning money in Swahili), Kenyan operator Safaricom became the first-ever telecom company to create a mass mobile-banking service, setting industry standards now being replicated across the globe. Currently mobile money is undergoing an explosion in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
As venture capitalist funds find their way to the continent, the governments are now also taking deep interest. Just in August Nigeria’s government announced plans to launch a $15-million venture fund. The fund will be dedicated for high potential businesses in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector and will be sourced from the National Information Development Agency (NITDA) and the private sector.
What is instructive about the foregoing is that none of these apps and startups existed ten years ago. This points to the fact that more of our people are expressing their creativity, adopting globally available knowledge in solving local problems and creating wealth. The only way for Africa to go, is up. We are well on our way to building fifty four different Silicon Valley’s on the continent.
The Coca-Cola A Billion Reasons to Believe in Africa campaign aims to celebrate the many wholly African startups and technological feats achieved by Africans. Share with us those wonderful apps and other services made by Africans for Africans that you know about or which you use here. Let’s keep the conversation going.