A spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship are sweeping the continent, driven in no small part by a surge of enabling technology. The touch-point of this technological uprising is the mobile phone: a device serving as a communication tool, information resource, personal computing device, high-tech wallet and source of entertainment. In a continent still feeling the absence of a substantial legacy of built infrastructure, mobile phones and networks have offered a way to leap-frog into the connected world, and thereby improve lives.
Africa’s widespread and rapid adoption of mobile is well documented. We’ve all seen the stats telling us that Africa has the fastest growth of mobile subscribers, that more people own mobile phones than have access to electricity, and that for some in Kenya airtime is a higher priority than food or transportation. In 2014, Toby Shapshak highlighted the drive towards mobile innovation in Africa, covering healthcare, education, and business. That pace of development has continued and today we’re seeing even greater contributions across all sectors.
The great potential of Africa’s mobile savvy population is not lost on the tech giants of Silicon Valley. Facebook’s Free Basics program offers access to certain mobile websites free of network data charges, allowing more people to access essential information from their phones. Google’s Android One project is producing quality Android smartphones, designed and developed by Google, and sold at an affordable price. Android One has recently expanded to cover several African countries, including Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Egypt, and Morocco
Network speeds are also improving rapidly, with 4G connectivity opening the way to video streaming and rich content sharing. LTE is available in Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and of course South Africa, to name a few.
On the back of these technological advancements, entrepreneurs and developers are building solutions that have a positive impact on people’s lives. A few examples are listed below
mHealth apps like Peek Vision and Vula Mobile have helped to diagnose eye conditions in remote locations, thereby allowing patients to be screened and referred to doctors to receive the treatment they need. Many patients who were blind have had their sight restored after years of darkness.
Vula Mobile also includes a flexible referral and patient tracking system that has expanded to support several other medical specialisations such as HIV, Cardiology, Orthopaedics and Burns (Disclaimer: Cobi Interactive helped build Vula Mobile).
HearScreen, a mobile app developed in Pretoria, offers a similar solution for hearing tests and provides clinically valid results at a fraction of the normal cost.
Maternal health in South Africa and Nigeria is being improved through the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) and MomConnect, which are using mobile technology including SMS and USSD services powered by the Praekelt Foundation’s Vumi platform. Similar services are used to send reminders to HIV and Tuberculosis sufferers to take their medication regularly
The availability of mobile devices in Africa brings with it the hope that educational resources and distance learning tools can be delivered via the mobile channel. While this is true, internet access and the associated cost remain a barrier. This is why initiatives like the Free Basics programme play an important role and need to extend to more content and services.
Where internet access is available, educational material can be distributed via mobile. Not only to learners, but also to teachers to aid in their training and provide valuable resources. The Open University and the African Virtual University (AVU) are part of the Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA) programme. A focus for TESSA is to make resources more accessible from mobile phones, which are often the only means rural teachers have to access the internet. Indeed, the theme for this year’s annual AVU conference is “Integrating mobile learning to open up access to quality education and training opportunities in Africa.”
In South Africa, where smartphones and internet access are more prevalent, phone and tablet based programmes are commonplace in schools. Ambitious plans have been put in place to provide tablets to public schools in Gauteng, for example.
Vocational training is also benefiting from mobile technology. Several products and corporate training programmes provide tablet based video training, followed by assessment. Results are captured and aggregated to measure the progress of individuals and the group. Awards and gamification have been added to incentivise the learning.
Low cost Virtual Reality experiences can now be provided with Google Cardboard. This has the potential to enhance the understanding of a topic by immersing learners in related virtual environments. At the University of Pretoria, VR is being explored to aid in training for high-risk mining activities.
Public transport has benefited from the wider availability of information and reporting to commuters through mobile phones. Data from commuters is fed back into the system and used to provide more accurate predictions and routing.
In private transport, Uber is growing faster in some African cities than in major American and European cities, with innovations in service including cash payments in Nigeria. Partnerships are being forged with local operators and businesses to improve the offering.
- Finance & Payments
M-Pesa remains a compelling example of an African mobile tech success story. It continues to dominate mobile payments, money transfers and banking in Kenya and is now extending to neighbouring territories. Similar products are available in other countries with varying degrees of success
In South Africa, SnapScan is a popular mobile payment solution based on QR code scanning. Rivals such as FlickPay are also making an impact. Yoco allows card payments to be accepted by attaching a small card reader to a smartphone. In the near future contactless payments will become a reality as major retailers offer support for NFC payments.
For merchants, phone and tablet based point-of-sale apps and corresponding cloud services are giving small and medium businesses the opportunity to streamline their operations.
A major trend in Africa is to lower the barriers for loan and insurance applications by leveraging mobile phones and apps. Documentation and IDs can be photographed using the phone’s camera and uploaded directly as part of the application process, eliminating inconvenient and costly paper applications and travel to branch offices.
- Crisis Response and Monitoring
The Ushahidi platform, which originated in Kenya, has been used for several years as a data collection, mapping and response tool in crisis situations. It’s also been used for election monitoring in Kenya and Mozambique. Such is its success that it’s now used around the world, including recently to help manage the response to the earthquake in Kathmandu.
Praekelt’s Vumi platform has been used to support citizen reporting and election monitoring in South Africa and voter registration in Libya.
The crowd-sourced mapping platform, Open Street Maps, and a part of its community, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), have worked to create accurate maps in remote parts of Africa to support humanitarian efforts, such as the response to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014. These areas were not covered sufficiently by Google Maps data. The maps produced by this effort are available offline on Android phones.
There are countless other examples of innovation in mobile technology that are helping to transform the lives of people on a local, national and continental level. The momentum generated by these innovations will surely drive further development as others see the opportunities available to them. Who can predict what direction the future work will take?
We’re privileged to be part of an age of invention and creativity, as our continent solves its problems with ingenuity. One cannot help but be encouraged by the energy, excitement and optimism of Africa’s mobile tech movement, and be inspired to join it.
Dennis Burford- Technical Operations Director, Cobi Interactive