Google’s influence on Mobile Africa

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

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Google has for some time now espoused universal Web access and is currently employing various technologies and holding discussions with regulators from Kenya to South Africa to try and open up access to the mobile Web. Africa contains some of the fastest growing economies in the world and the exponential uptake in mobile devices across the continent and access to the Internet are seen as key in lifting economies up the value chain and helping to eradicate poverty through financial, social and political inclusion. Africa however has suffered from a lack of technological infrastructure and Google is now trying to change this.

The Internet giant is planning on building high speed wireless networks in sub-Saharan Africa using high-altitude balloons which are able to transmit signals across thousands of kilometres. One of its first projects on the continent is a wireless broadband network in Cape Town using several masts in Stellenbosch university to transmit signals to 10 local schools. Google is also currently in discussions with telecoms firms and looking at establishing partnerships to open up Internet access to people in rural areas. There is no clear solution however on a continent with a severe lack of infrastructure and nobody is certain as to how the future will look. What is certain however is that Google wants to be at the forefront of developments.

Large Internet players like Facebook, Microsoft and Google often talk about the next billion people to access the Internet, and how the majority of them will come from the developing world and will access it through mobile devices. There is also likely to be a flood of cheap smartphones in Africa over the coming years and Google wants to be at the forefront of this through the production of cheap Nexus phones and tablets. Google’s dominance of the smartphone market is not itself a moneymaker. It gives away its open-sourced software on Android for free so as to increase the reach of its information-gathering system. Making Android free to developers has never been simply about opening up the Mobile Web. It is a way of ensuring that Google’s apps and services are used on smartphones harnessing as much data, information and add revenue as possible. Google now wishes to break into the African and Asian markets by reducing the cost of smartphones. It is doing this to exert is monopoly position in these, in Internet terms, virgin territories.

So, it is easy to understand why Google is helping to bring mobile Internet access to parts of Africa. Google’s continued growth depends on reaching new people in the developing world, who will be the next generation of its customers. Its intentions clearly aren’t completely philanthropic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enormously beneficial to developing economies whose people are accessing the Internet for the first time.

South Africa uses text messaging to improve Maternal Health Access

South Africa

South Africa (Photo credit: United Nations Photo)

After years of headlines about Africa’s poverty, its emerging middle class, estimated to be  at about 300 million of the continent’s 1 billion people, is now grabbing attention as a driver of growth and democracy. It is probably the fastest-growing consumer class in the world and a large number of African countries are achieving relative stability in politics and economic policy, allowing the middle class to emerge and prosper.

However, it is till the least developed region in the world and someone described as middle class in Africa is unlikely to have the same financial security as someone from Europe or Asia. The continent was in the headlines for the wrong reasons recently when Save The Children reports revealed that The Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s toughest place to raise children. Indeed, the 10 bottom-ranked countries were all from sub-Saharan Africa, with one woman in 30 dying from pregnancy-related causes on average and one child in seven dying before his or her fifth birthday. These numbers are too high and innovative solutions are being used to try and combat this.

Of the world’s 6 billion phones it is estimated that 5 billion are in developing countries and this offers a huge opportunity for areas such as mobile healthcare. Data from mobile phones can help in the fight against diseases like malaria through monitoring the movement of a country’s people to enable SMS warnings of hotspot areas and to advise people to wear bed nets in high-risk areas.

In addition, reports from regional powerhouse South Africa have demonstrated how Mobile phone technology can be used to communicate with mothers who often have to cope with extremely challenging conditions. According to UNICEF, 4,300 mothers die in South Africa every year due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. The recently launched programme is known simply as MAMA, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, and is fighting to reduce maternal deaths. An expectant mother may receive 2 – 3 messages a week to offer advice as well as warning signs to look out for and is available in several different languages. The MAMA service demonstrates how mobile technology can assist in healthcare and go some way in radically improving the lives of expectant mothers in the developing world. It has already launched in Bangladesh, and will soon launch in India.