Posts Tagged ‘Young tech developers in Africa’

pix1In 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.


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Africa is the future 

One of Africa’s greatest rappers, MI signing the ‘Believe Wall’ at the official launch of Coca-Cola’s ‘Billion Reasons to Believe in Africa’ in Lagos

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.

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