Africa online 2011: The mobile continentFebruary 28th, 2011 by Ville Miettinen
According to a recent article in the Economist, in most African countries more people have a mobile phone than a bank account. In technologically advanced Kenya, over 50% of the population now owns a mobile. A friend of mine who used to live in Mali told me that many young people there would rather go hungry than go without SMS.
In the West, all the money and media attention goes to smartphones – see the hyperactive press coverage of Nokia’s recent deal with Microsoft. However, while citizens of London and New York are obsessed with the latest iPhone, in Nairobi the most popular handsets are still the Nokia 5130 and 3110. But, even stuck with this “classic” hardware, African companies have managed to come up with some truly innovative applications.
Show me the money
If there’s one area where Africa leads the world, it’s mobile banking. The Kenyan company M-Pesa is a branch-less, mobile money system that allows customers to transfer cash by SMS. In Nairobi, apparently, you can even pay taxi drivers by mobile. The success of services like M-Pesa is jaw dropping: in Kenya over $30 million worth of mobile transactions are carried out every day. And, if there really are more mobile phones than bank accounts in Africa, there’s definitely scope for the sector to expand.
Mobile banking is a relatively safe way to move money, and great for people in rural districts. It’s also a way of getting paid. Crowdsourced work providers have been quick to catch on. Take the African business directory Mocality. Mocality uses crowdsourced workers to write and edit database entries, paying them via (you guessed it) M-Pesa.
Silicon Valley, Nairobi?
Over the last couple of years, the success of organizations like Samasource, Txteagle, and, above all, Ushahidi (also from Kenya), has really put African crowdsourcing on the map. New initiatives are constantly jumping on the bandwagon (or on the bush taxi, perhaps). Many are health care or development projects, like Sproxil. Operating in Nigeria and Ghana, Spoxil has developed software that allows the crowd to authenticate drug labels via SMS. The aim is to fight the huge trade in illegal pharmaceuticals.
Some entrepreneurs have begun to think outside the development sector – moving towards more commercial enterprises. Eric Hersman, one of the Ushahidi founders, recently set up iHub in Nairobi. iHub is a building where developers can enjoy their natural habitat – fast broadband, laptops, comfy chairs and strictly no dress code. The physical space is also a gateway to a wider, online community of developers, funders, clients and programmers – all keen to explore the commercial possibilities of Africa’s mobile and web revolution.
Last year, in a blog covering Africa, we wrote about the challenges facing the budding tech industry: corrupt governments, instability, lack of infrastructure and lack of basic resources. One year on, and these problems are still major issues. One reason the mobile sector is so strong is that high-speed broadband is still patchy and, even in Kenya, overpriced and unreliable. People may be prepared to go hungry in order to afford a mobile but, in a better world, no one would have to make that choice.
But, as African companies are proving, necessity really is the mother of invention. I personally can’t wait to see what the African crowd has come up with by 2012.