PICNIC2008 wrapped up last week after devoting an entire day of scheduling to the innovations coming out of Africa. Dubbed 'Surprising Africa', the conference featured prolific social entrepreneurs and technology developers from around the world who offered insight into various projects from the African continent.In Amsterdam the social media technology conference
In this post we look at the state of the fast-growing mobile industry in Africa. This is the second post in our series on Africa's Web (Part 1 is here).
Africa is unique in that it seems to have bypassed the same era of community infrastructure building that has occurred in developed nations around the world. This is not without reason, there are some incredible hurdles to over come. Displacing the poor, complying with local governments, paying bribes, and the risk of civil unrest. Thus, most of the technologies that currently permeate Africa aren't terrestrial. There are very few telephone lines, but mobile penetration is higher than any other region in the world. There is also limited terrestrial fiber for connecting to the internet. Instead, internet connectivity is distributed nearly entirely by satellite. As useful as this is now, satellite connections have a bottleneck that naturally limits the number of users who can connect before the whole network slows down. This keeps prices unreasonably high while internet speeds tend to be unreasonably slow in comparison to the rest of the world.
The tough conditions developers face in the continent provide some challenges but overcoming them offers something greater. According to Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman:
"The challenges brought about by bad governance, poverty, low bandwidth (all the negative things you associate with Africa) also provide an incredible opportunity. The developers who are coming up with solutions in the continent, the ones who are writing software or hacking hardware, are creating for some of the harshest environments and use-cases in the world. If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere."
Perhaps this thought is what motivated Google to invest in O3B Networks earlier this month. O3B Networks is an ambitious attempt to bring three billion people in the developing world (mainly in parts of Asia and Africa) online by launching sixteen inexpensive, low-orbit satellites. The potential benefits for Google are obvious. This is three billion new internet users, who will more than likely use Google to search, and who will potentially click-through Adsense links and use other Google products. An indicator that Google may be anticipating as much is their move into Africa last year. They've since opened offices and hired people in both South Africa and Kenya with plans to eventually operate out of all sub-Saharan African countries.
Mobile Penetration Statistics from Africa
- At the end of 2007 there were over 280 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa, representing a penetration rate of 30.4%
- Africa has become the fastest growing mobile market in the world with mobile penetration in the region ranging from 30% to 100% from country to country.
- Fastest growing markets are in Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt
- Increased competition as more operators come online in each country (11 in Nigeria, 4 in Kenya and SA, 3 in Egypt and Morocco)
- Pre-paid subscriptions account for nearly 95 percent of total mobile subscriptions in the region.
- The Democratic Republic of Congo, population 60 million, has 10,000 fixed telephones but more than a million mobile phone subscribers.
- In Chad, the fifth-least developed country, mobile phone usage jumped from 10,000 to 200,000 in three years.
African Innovations in Mobile
A broad look at some of the tech being produced for the mobile industry by the continent...
Micro-payments and Mobile Banking
In Africa, until recently, there's been no easy way for consumers to purchase things other than with cash. Most financial institutions on the continent don't offer credit credit cards, and those that do have trouble finding other institutions that will accept them. This has lead to an incredible amount of innovation in the areas of micro-payments and mobile banking. MPESA by Safaricom (micro-payments) and Wizzit (mobile banking) are examples.
Mobile News Reporting
Because of the lack of basic infrastructure, getting information from one place to another quickly is often extremely difficult. A number of organizations have tackled this problem using Mobile devices. mPedigree offers a way to authenticate pharmaceutical drugs and prescriptions using SMS. Winafrique tackles issues with communication and power by offering wind powered cellular towers. QuestionBox.org collects data from and distributes it to rural areas using a SMS/web/voice platform. Ushahidi allows people to report and geolocate incidents of violence and incident using SMS.
Mobile Application Developers
Kenya's Mobile Planet made news in August when Google announced that they'd be investing in the mobile application start-up. Mobile Planet specializes in the development of wireless voice & data applications for mobile devices in Kenya, with a special focus on SMS-based products and services. Meanwhile, independent developers like Moris Mbetsa have repurposed mobile technology for all sorts of solutions like this anti-theft and tracking system for vehicles.
See also: Social Media in Africa, Part 1