Africa's innovative engines
09 August 2012
Will Mutua throws light on how access to the internet and mobile technologies has spurred innovation across the African continent in various in sectors such as finance, health and agriculture.
Today, ‘Africa’, ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ are terms often found in the same sentence. Technology, and particularly mobile telephony, has radically changed the face of the continent and the lives of its people.
Africa is the fastest-growing mobile market in the world and is the second largest, after Asia. According to the GSM Association, mobile subscriptions have grown almost 20% each year for the past five years.
The GSMA, according to its November 2011 Africa Mobile Observatory report, predicts that there will be over 700 million subscribers by the end of 2012. There were already close to 650 million subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2011, about 65% of the total potential market. Mobile has also been a key asset to increasing the penetration of the internet in Africa.
In Kenya, for example, the mobile phone is the primary means by which people access the internet. According to the latest statistics from the Communications Commission of Kenya, out of a total of 6.15 million internet subscriptions, mobile data and internet subscriptions account for 6.07 million of those.
Access to the internet and mobile technologies has spurred innovation across the continent in various sectors such as finance, health and agriculture. Mobile money, and specifically the success story of M–Pesa (M=mobile, and Pesa is Swahili for money), is the poster child of mobile innovation in the African financial services sector. Ubiquitous mobile technology such as SMS has led to the financial inclusion of millions of Africans who would otherwise be termed as 'unbanked'.
Two examples of innovative services stand out in the agricultural sector. Esoko is a fast-growing software company headquartered in Accra, Ghana. It focuses on improving agricultural processes through creating software for collecting, analysing and sharing data related to agriculture. A company in Kenya founded by three innovative women, M–Farm, is using SMS technology to enable farmers to get current price information, aggregate their needs and connect them with farm input suppliers, enabling them to sell their produce collectively.
Many mHealth initiatives are being undertaken across the African continent. For example, students at Uganda's Makerere University came up with a mobile app for taking pregnancy scans. The app, called WinSenga, records the sounds from the mother's belly and contains an analysis program that produces reports detailing the unborn baby’s position, age, weight, breathing pattern and heart rate.
The numerous innovation hubs that have sprung up across the continent are nerve centres of innovation. These spaces pioneered by Nairobi's Innovation Hub (iHub) are pooling together talented, innovative young people and creating a supportive environment for innovation. There are at least 35 tech hubs now in 13 countries across Africa.
These innovation hubs are instrumental at strengthening ‘bottom of the pyramid’ companies – often scrappy start-ups that are in the pre-seed funding stage, with just a couple of people with an idea probably trying to come up with a prototype. The hub provides a place for these start-ups to work from so they do not have to worry about basics such as office space or internet connectivity and costs while at the same time exposes them to like-minded individuals.
Hubs also create environments that support the exchange of ideas as developers meet and mingle with designers and business people. Amazing innovations result from interacting in these environments.
The future is bright. Today, Africa is connected to the world via numerous undersea cables. As a result, wholesale prices for internet bandwidth have dropped by as much as 90% from previous levels based on satellite access, and the cost savings are slowly trickling down to the retail level.
Delivering broadband to the ‘last mile’ connection is still a challenge, but fortunately, the mobile phone network has been a significant factor in bringing access to even the remotest of users. The introduction of what could be termed low-end, low-cost smart phones stands to further increase internet penetration on the continent. In Kenya, Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company, introduced its low-cost Android-powered IDEOS smartphone in partnership with Safaricom in 2011. The phone rapidly became the country's top selling smartphone.
Growing internet penetration has levelled the playing field and increased access to knowledge. Africa has joined the knowledge economy, and there are far fewer barriers to competing on this platform, as opposed to other sectors of the economy. Africa is a continent to watch. Its innovative engines are running nicely, and it is becoming harder to ignore as a player in the world economy.