How mobile technology is transforming Africa

English: Motorola V66 mobile phone

English: Motorola V66 mobile phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mobile phone numbers are likely to reach 1 billion in Africa by 2015. How is mobile technology transforming peoples’ lives?


Despite Africa containing many of the world’s fastest growing economies and a burgeoning middle class, it still lacks behind in educational standards. As mobile uptake increases, and a flood of cheaper smartphones enter the continent offering Internet access, there is a tremendous opportunity to allow the mobile phone to facilitate educational training. In Nigeria, a country with well below average educational standards, UNESCO recently launched an SMS educational toll aimed at providing primary school teachers with regular updates on educational content. The scheme in Nigeria follows successful initiatives in other parts of the developing world that have opened up mobile learning to those in rural areas as well as women, who can be excluded from traditional forms of education.

Empowerment of women

It is potentially an unexpected benefit resulting from the exponential uptake of mobile devices in the developing world, but mobile phones have definitely helped the most marginalised in society which often include women. The move towards mobile money has opened up financial services to women, who can receive payments directly to their mobile phone, and has resulted in increased independence and a feeling of empowerment. From a healthare perspective, the mobile device can act as an excellent tool to disseminate information from malaria SMS warnings to maternal healthcare and advice. The mobile device is allowing women greater control over their lives.

Employment and payment

Mobile devices can act as tools of education and training for workers in hard to reach places without the costs of more traditional face-to-face training methods. There is no substitute for personal training but the mobile device is a step in the right direction.

Recent reports from the Democratic Republic of Congo also highlighted the fact that mobile banking has led to government workers getting paid on time as well as the amount owed to them. In a system where corruption is endemic, this is no mean feet. Workers get exactly what is owed to them, avoiding the traditional cash pay packet and superiors syphoning off ‘tips’


Mobility data is created when someone uses their phone for a call or a text. A user is then registered to the nearest cell tower and their movement is ascertained when they move form tower to tower. Use of this data is often known as crowd sourcing, and governments are now exploring the possibilities of using this data to update city’s transport systems. For example, the giant mobile operator, Orange, recently released tracking data on its phone users in Ivory Coast and researchers from IBM have started to use this data to update Ivory Coast’s transport system and cut travel times in the country’s largest city, Abidjan.

Personal finance

The African continent counts 15 of the top 20 countries in the world by mobile money usage. Mobile money is often associated with Safaricom’s hugely successful M-PESA service, which operates in several countries including Kenya, Tanzania and more recently, India. Access to a mobile phone is ubiquitous in many parts of Africa, and the mobile money service has empowered huge swathes of people by allowing them to pay bills, for goods and services, and transfer money from cities to rural areas at the touch of a mobile keypad button. In addition, the service has facilitated savings programmes protecting vulnerable families during times of hardship. Mobile money has helped governments and organisations reach the previously “unbanked”, who are often the most vulnerable in society but are able to access mobile phones.

A lack of entrenched banking services, minimal fees associated with the service, the huge geographical distances that separate city workers from rural families, and the fact that the vast majority of people own a mobile phone in Africa have all led to the huge uptake of mobile money services on the continent.


Nairobi continues its charge to become Africa’s technology innovation hub

English: Beautiful City of Nairobi

English: Beautiful City of Nairobi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The future of computing and internet access is widely believed to be mobile. At the recent Mobile Engage in the UK, Facebook discussed ‘the next billion people’, citing the fact that 4.5 billion have yet to access the internet, and the majority of new internet users are likely to do so through a mobile device. Africa, experiencing explosive population growth, a burgeoning consumer class, and the exponential uptake of mobile devices, is likely to be where much of new mobile internet users come from. Indeed, the GSMA believe that mobile connections in sub- Saharan Africa, home to some 900m people, will hit half a billion this year.

Kenya is a relatively stable democracy, has a long history of technological investment, and is likely to be at the forefront of mobile innovation. There are countless examples of why Kenya, and in particular Nairobi, is leading the charge to become the region’s technological innovation centre.

Firstly, and potentially the project with the greatest regional impact, Kenya has recently begun building the much hyped ‘Silicon Savannah’ development in Konza, about 60km south of Nairobi. The project aims to turn Konza into the most modern city in Africa and is widely expected to be a game-changer for Kenya’s $36bn economy.. The initial phase will be completed in 2017, and when finally completed in 2030, Konza City is expected to create some 200,000 jobs as well as countless schools and universities. Konza – economically and politically a “new city” in Africa – may well act as a blueprint for further developments on the continent.

Kenya was the birthplace of M-PESA, the hugely successful mobile banking service, which has opened up financial services to millions of ‘unbanked’ people in Africa. Africa is now a hotbed of mobile money activity, and the continent counts 15 of the top 20 countries by mobile money usage.

This month, Nairobi became the third African city, after Johannesburg and Casablanca, to become home to an IBM innovation centre. The GSMA, the governing body and set of standards for the mobile operators, also recently choose Nairobi for its first African office.

A recent Microsoft initiative, Microsoft 4Afrika, is investing in a strategic cooperation with business incubator iHub and m:lab in East Africa to help start-ups build and grow their businesses using Microsoft technologies. The cooperation aims to increase access to software and improve technological innovation in Kenya and the surrounding area. Indeed, both Google and IBM have regional offices there.

There are huge numbers of benefits for companies operating in technology and mobile to set up operations in Africa. Firstly, there is a real lack of red tape preventing innovation, which can often be found in Europe and the US. This means that innovations such as M-PESA can get off the ground quickly and spread to Tanzania and India as it has done. In addition, international companies can learn from efforts in Africa and transfer projects to the West. How much can we learn from the M-PESA mobile banking system to encourage uptake in the west. Indeed, in areas such as NFC and mobile payments, Africa is way ahead of the UK which will need to do a huge amount to gain the trust of the consumer around areas such as data use and security. What can we learn from the recent project in Ivory Coast which saw Orange open up its mobility data to help redraw Abidjan’s bus routes? Although projects using mobile technology are likely to be vastly different across continents, surely there are lessons to be learnt.

So Nairobi may be a leader in Africa, but as the poor outnumber the rich online, particularly through mobile connections, it may become a global leader in mobile technology. Watch this space.

Future Mobile Trends in Africa

Satellite image of Africa, showing the ecologi...

Satellite image of Africa, showing the ecological break that defines the sub-Saharan area (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mobile access has democratised technology and allows people to communicate across geographical borders as well as acting as a social glue from a personal point of view as well as a broader societal perspective. Nowhere is this point more prevalent than in Africa.

Below are several key points derived from a recent report entitled ‘Mobile Trends 2020 Africa’ which was put together by various industry experts, as well as my response to each point.

The African market will see a flood of cheap smartphones allowing access to online information and social networks which could have an impact on the democracy of a country

We all saw the impact of  social networking, particularly Twitter, during the Arab Spring. The mobile device and is use as a mass communication tool also had an impact on the recent elections in Kenya, previously marred by mass violence, by means of monitoring results and diffusing ethnic tensions. Finally, mobile technology can also be used by politicians to communicate with its electorate and open up information on policies.

Smartphones will replace the need for physical banks, as mobile makes banking a far easier process

The success of Kenya ‘s M-PESA has been well documented and has opened up banking services to large numbers of people in parts of Africa and Asia. Africa is the hotbed of Mobile money activity, and the continent counts 15 of the top 20 countries by mobile money usage. It’s success has been such that it will also soon be launching in India.

Concerns are rightfully being raised around security, however the potential benefits to millions of’ unbanked’ people surely outweigh the risks, and opening up mobile money access acts as a tool of empowerment allowing people and businesses to prosper.

In addition, mobile devices are being used to prevent corruption, in places like Ivory Coast and Afghanistan, as mobile money payments ensure that workers get their full pay and the m-transfer prevents management from taking ‘tips’.

Mobile and associated technologies will ensure Africa acts as a hub of innovation

There are countless examples of this, the most prominent one being Kenya’s Silicon Savannah which will provide employment and act as a centre of innovation for the region, this follows on from Kenyan technological breakthroughs such as M-PESA and Ushahidi. In addition, projects like the iHub in Kenya offer an alternative picture of a bright future for the continent with a focus on technological innovation.

Kenya pushes forward with “Silicon Savannah”

English: I&M Bank Tower in Nairobi, Kenya

English: I&M Bank Tower in Nairobi, Kenya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kenya has begun building the recently dubbed ‘Silicon Savannah’ development in Konza, about 60km south of Nairobi and the project is widely expected to be a game-changer for Kenya’s $36bn economy. The country that has focused on technology as a means of economic progress, and brought the continent breakthroughs such as M-PESA and Ushahidi, has now turned it’s attention to ensuring that it is one of the main centres of Africa’s technology sector. M-PESA is the country’s mobile phone banking system which empowers people by allowing the simple transfer of money through a mobile device and has helped the previously “unbanked”. Indeed, it estimated that the service transfers the equivalent of 27% of the country’s GDP. M-PESA has seen a massive uptake in Kenya and Tanzania and has recently launched in India targeting 220m people in Eastern parts of the country. Ushahidi is an open source, not for profit project that allows users to crowdsource information via multiple channels including mobile, the web, and twitter.

Construction on the 5,000 acre piece of land in Konza, has begun in an effort to turn Konza into the most modern city in Africa. The project has been split into 4 phases, with the initial phase planned for completion in 2017. Encouragingly, it has been reported that the development is not just about attracting technology firms to the site, but is also a way of circumventing the country’s corruption, which has been deeply embedded for decades. The site is also projected to create 200,000 jobs when completed in 2030, as well as schools and universities. Konza – economically and politically a “new city” in Africa – may well act as a blueprint for further developments on the continent.

The project is a natural progression for Kenya’s aspirations to be the technology hub in Africa, and organisations such as IBM, Google, Microsoft and Intel have their regional headquarters there. Concerns however have been raised about the fact that most of the companies being formed in Kenya are based on a single app or software programme, making them economically vulnerable. In addition, despite clear progress in the technology sector, the Kenyan government still has a long way to go in addressing the country’s 40% unemployment rate.

M-Pesa arrives in India

English: A poster advertising the introduction...

English: A poster advertising the introduction of the mobile payment service M-Pesa in Tanzania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Vodacom M-Pesa mobile banking service has been a huge success in many African countries and has recently launched in parts of India. After the huge success the M-Pesa service has had in Africa, it is hoped that the service will have the same impact in India. We take traditional banking services for granted in the West, but huge numbers of people in developing countries simply don’t have access. M-Pesa offers a way of empowering people and allows for the free flow of money in countries like Kenya, Tanzania and now India. M-Pesa adopts a simple, text-based approach to enable users to deposit and withdraw from specific M-Pesa outlets, carry out transfers, make payments at retail outlets and pay utility bills.

The M-Pesa service from Vodacom will target 700m people in India who currently don’t have access to banking services. It is being launched in partnership with ICICI Bank and will initially target 220m people in Eastern areas of India with the aim of reaching the 700m people in India with no access to banking services.

Whereas there is currently a ‘land grab’ in the UK for the potentially lucrative mobile payment market, with the likes of Google, PayPal, VISA, the newly launched WEVE and Retail outlets all jostling for position in what is likely to be a long and complicated process, more simple solutions in developing countries are likely to have more of an impact on peoples everyday lives. It may indeed be places like India and Africa that lead the way with mobile payment services, allowing for countries like the US and UK to learn from the process. Indeed, whereby mobile payments play such a crucial role in peoples lives, the issue of ‘trust’ around the security of the system is circumvented and progress is potentially quicker.

Marten Pieters, managing director and CEO of Vodafone India, stated

For millions of people in India, a mobile phone is a bank account, a front door to a micro-business or a lifeline to people in the remotest areas. Research shows that M-Pesa brings real benefits to users in their daily lives, saving three hours a week of their time and around $3 in money transfer costs – a significant amount to people in some areas.

Kenya’s iCow

Traditional farming in Guinea, West Africa

Traditional farming in Guinea, West Africa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Africa is a continent that is on the rise and examples of how mobile technology is enhancing everyday life are plentiful. Large tech-focused companies such as Microsoft and Google are investing heavily there, sub-Saharan Africa has the fastest growing Mobile Market in the world and innovative Mobile solutions such as M-PESA are developed by young, ambitious entrepreneurs. Digital technology is being used to overcome the continent’s obstacles for growth such as the use of text-based monitoring in the elections in Kenya, mHealth to improve the continent’s healthcare and in money and education.

Kenya’s iCow is another example of how mobile App development can help people in traditional farming jobs, in a continent where the majority of work is still very much agricultural. Whereby it has been difficult to find solutions to long-standing problems, Mobile technology has allowed people to find these solutions and leap-frog previous technological advances. The iCow works off a very simple premise, it allows farmers to register their cow with a text and receive regular updates on gestation periods, when cows are most likely to be ready to mate, as well as information on recent outbreaks of diseases.

42,000 farmers have signed up, which is a small percentage of Kenya’s farming population, so the potential is huge for a product that has already been said to have improved the lives and productivity of farmers by giving them more power and control over their livestock.

In a continent where many countries are now witnessing incredible growth in Mobile usage and where internet access through Mobile web is far out-stripping Desktop access, iCow is another example of progress in a continent ripe for investment and opportunities.