In 2008, following post-election violence in Kenya, a group of young techies in Nairobi created Ushahidi, 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, which means ‘testimony’ in Swahili, has become the world’s default platform for mapping crises, disasters and political upheaval. As at September of 2016, Ushahidi, which is free to download, had seen over 90,000 deployments, reaching a population of over 20million across the globe.
Digital technology is transforming how we live our lives and sub-Saharan Africa has been an interesting theatre for this revolution. While its adoption has varied greatly between countries, reflecting the peculiar needs of the people, it is, regardless of the country, transforming economic activity, evolving new platforms and opportunities for delivering new products and services to Africans while also breaking down the barriers that has long held the continent back.
A number of underlying drivers are responsible for laying the groundwork for the ongoing technological revolution. The first of these is the emergence of Africa’s new ‘Consumer Class’ with access to income that is truly disposable. The second driver is Africa’s demographic and urbanisation boom. By 2050, Africa will account for almost 24% of the world’s population while Africa’s rate of urbanisation has risen from just 11.2% in 1950 to an estimated 38% in 2015, creating more than 50 African cities with a population of over 1 million. This rate is forecast to rise to 50% by 2030. The third driver is the ubiquity of mobile phones in Africa. Back in 2000, barely 1% of Africans had a mobile phone; by 2016 this proportion had risen to over 80%.
Together these growth drivers have made sub-Saharan African ripe for disruption with a number of digital services making a huge impact in the development sector. Fintech (financial technology) leads the charge, blazing a trail across the continent as its boosts financial inclusion and challenges banking models. So successful has the launch of mobile banking been that over half of the world’s mobile money deployments are in sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated 223 million registered accounts and 84 million active accounts. The poster child of African fintech is M-PESA, Kenya’s mobile money platform. The mobile payments network created by M-PESA has transformed Kenya’s economy – bringing millions of Kenyans into the financial system – and laid the groundwork for a wave of innovation in financial services, extending credit to Africans who were previously unbanked.
Similarly, digital technology has had a huge impact in Agriculture, providing channels to disseminate information to farmers about their crops and livestock. Apps have led the way, with numerous services providing live price data, marketing information, training and community services. Leading examples include Cocoa Link (developed by the World Cocoa Foundation for cocoa farmers in Ghana), Esoko (the so-called ‘Facebook for farmers’, providing farming and marketing information in a dozen African countries) and i-cow (providing husbandry tips for Kenyan dairy farmers). In addition, there is the example of the innovative use, by the Nigerian government, of cell phones as an e-wallet to change the way farmers get fertilisers and other farming inputs. This was hugely successful in helping to remove middlemen, reduce corruption in the sector and increase productivity.
One new technology could address the difficulty of delivering goods to African locations that are remote or poorly served by roads: drones. The use of drones to deliver small to medium-sized packages is being piloted in a number of countries in Africa. Rwanda is experimenting with using drones to deliver urgent medical supplies to mountain communities – a trip that could take 2-3 days on a motorbike can be accomplished by a drone in a few hours. If successfully implemented this new technology could be a breakthrough for the retail sector as well as for health and agriculture extension services, enabling the rapid and efficient sending of high-value or urgent items to otherwise inaccessible locations.
In health, Peek, the portable eye examination kit that lets users carry out eye exams by taking high quality retinal images with their mobile phone, and Cardiopad, a tablet computer designed to test for heart problems in remote Cameroonian communities which lack cardiologists, demonstrate how with relatively simple technology local health worker can carry out medical examinations and get remote diagnosis of the results quickly and cheaply. In addition, Sproxil and M-pedigree, both SMS based technologies, have been successfully used in combating counterfeit drugs and other unwholesome products.
Technologies are also being developed that use mobile call-data records (CDRs) to map outbreaks of diseases and identify where treatment centres should be built. A pioneer in this space is the Swedish non-profit organisation, Flowminder. Using anonymised voice and text data from 150,000 mobile phones in Senegal, the company created detailed maps of population movement during the recent Ebola outbreak, helping inform decisions on where to target help.
These success stories and prospects have not been without challenges. Chief among these is regulation from government. The disruptive effect of digital technology often brings it in conflict with traditional systems with some governments putting regulatory provisions in place to ‘restrain’ it. This is reason why for example Mobile money has not been as successful in Nigeria despite the mobile phone penetration. Next is the power situation on the continent. Without reliable power, developers are unable to work and end users are unable also access these services. There is also a skills gap with only very few programmers, a host of them self-taught, working in mostly independently funded creation hubs to develop applications. Digital technology is not a common feature of formal school curricula on the continent. In addition, with funding coming mainly from venture capitalists, focus has been more on services that have commercial value and not necessarily those with developmental impact on poor communities.
These challenges notwithstanding, the opportunity for digitally enabling development on the continent is huge.
This piece was shortlisted for the Haller Prize for Development Journalism, 2016.