Information technology — from computing to communications — played a crucial role in the creation of wealth and rise in quality of life in industrialized countries in the twentieth century. For a long time, post colonial Africa’s solutions to poverty were discussed at length by distinguished world leaders who came up with all sorts of solutions. Innovations across a range of fields, from energy to medicine to food production, essential for poverty reduction, were implemented without the inclusion of developing science and technology as a viable solution to the developing world. Which was a grave mistake considering the great strides that have been taken, through ICT, in the last 2 decades, even in poor countries, partly because of liberalization in government telecommunications policies and partly because of sharp declines in the cost of computing and communications equipment.
Today, out of the seven billion people in the world, approximately six billion are cell phone subscribers. Recent statistics predict that by 2016, 1 billion cell phones will be active in Africa. That’s the continent’s entire population! Africa is connected and the differences are being felt!
Who in the world hasn’t heard of the great strides African countries are making when it comes to the way we’re handling our money? Since Kenya’s main telecommunications company, Safaricom, unveiled MPesa, a mobile banking platform, in 2007, its adoption has been stupendous! Kenya alone has about 17 million subscribers to the MPesa platform that has provided access to banking, saving and e-payment solutions to those who were previously unbanked. The mobile money platform has been so successful that it has inspired other countries to innovate and develop mbanking solutions across the continent. Today more than 55 million Africans use basic phone services to transfer money with each other, take out insurance policies, and collect payments from government agencies. Remittances from relatives living abroad are also largely done via mobile banking.
In fact, mobile money accounts have outnumbered bank accounts in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Madagascar. Across sub-Saharan Africa, more people have a mobile money accounts than Facebook accounts.
Crowdsourcing was pioneered in Kenya through a local app called Ushahidi that was developed for real time tracking of post-election violence in 2007. Citizens were able to report violent occurrences via text messages to a server that was viewable by the rest of the world as they happened.
One lesson from the 2011 uprisings across North Africa, 2015’s social media campaigns against Xenophobia and #FeesMustFall in South Africa is that mobile phones, with the infinite opportunities they offer for connection and communication, are able to transform ordinary citizens disenchanted by their governments, into resistance fighters.
In Kenya, the Kilimo Salama scheme is providing crop insurance for farmers, using the M-PESA payment gateway, helping them to better manage natural hazards such as drought or excessive rainfall. Similar mechanics have also allowed the SMS based application Tigo Kilimo in Tanzania to provide instant weather figures and agricultural tips to small-scale farms.
Mobile phones have allowed farmers to gain access to market prices before traveling long distances to markets. The Kenyan text messaging platform SokoniSMS64 uses SMS to quickly transfer exact information about wholesale retails of crops, allowing farmers to be able to negotiate deals with traders and improve upon timing to get crops to the market.
Advancements in surveying have also allowed Uganda to develop childbirths and death registry tools. Countrywise, children are now being registered using the Mobile Vital Records System (MVRS), a pilot technology spearheaded by the Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB). In a country where less than 21% of births of children less than five years old are registered, results so far have been phenomenal. Between January and July 2013, at least 239,548 children were recorded, contributing to a 4.7% reduction in the five million unregistered children under five.
In Kenya, the taxman, Kenya Revenue Authority, is using mobile money platforms to track down tax evaders and bring them to justice, as revealed in their recent tax compliance campaign for landlords dubbed #RentalTaxAmnesty.
Celebrities such as Didier Drogba, a football player in Sub-Saharan Africa, dispatches text messages millions of subscribers communicating “its 9pm – are you and your family safely sleeping under your net?” to increase preventative actions against Malaria . Results from text campaigns like these have been phenomenal, increasing bednet use by 12%, translating into 500,000 people sleeping under nets which otherwise may be vulnerable to a deadly mosquito bite.
In Mali, telemedicine is helping overcome the lack of trained healthcare workers and specialists in rural areas, specifically the IKON Tele-radiology program.
Technology has opened Africa to new vistas and presented its youths with an opportunity to tackle the scourge of unemployment themselves – some have even turned that opportunity to million dollar companies. Entrepreneurship is now seen as a viable route to success for young people. This was due in part to the piloting of the tech incubator model through ICT hubs like iHub (Kenya) and Mara Launch Pad (Uganda), which has now spread to dozens of African countries.
Can Information Technology save Africa?
This is not a question meant to provoke debate between what some observers describe as “cyber–optimists,” “cyber–pessimists,” and “cyber–skeptics.” The skeptics say technological advance is a symptom of a healthy society, not the source of one. Without strong political, social and economic institutions, innovations developed by others cannot easily be imported into a society. Without a strong educational system and a baseline of health and safety, the talented people necessary for the application of existing technical knowledge and the growth of new know–how won’t be available in a society. Either way, while disease, disaster, civil war and government failure shape Africa’s present, information technology — applied intelligently and fairly — could write the region’s future to an unexpected degree.
I wrote this article first for OTB Africa.