Mobile phone technology offers a great leapfrogging opportunity for Africa in the economic and development spheres.
The use of technology is changing the state of affairs in the continent and mobile phones are its most used form of digital technology. A mobile phone is not only a communication gadget, but also a tool for empowerment and community development. Mobile applications are being launched in various parts of the continent to improve lives while contributing towards economic development and compensating for the lack of infrastructure. As a result of these new technologies, the growth rate of the various communities has been rising progressively.
A continent of 54 countries that share a lot in common
Africa is a continent divided into 54 nations and various regions, but they all have a lot in common. Through the years there has been a paradigm shift in most spheres of life. For instance, today the number of the educated is more than it was ten years ago and the economic status of many states has improved. In 2000, London based magazine The Economist published a cover story titled. ‘The Hopeless Continent’. The edition had a black cover with the map of Africa and an image of an African man carrying a missile. The story highlighted the state of affairs at that moment, a time in history when the continent reeked of poverty, disease and bloodshed. At that time the growth rate in Africa was at 2% and economists had no hope for improvement. Fast forward a few years later in 2011, The Economist again published another report with the title, ‘Africa Rising’. Merely a decade later the narrative had shifted from that of hopelessness to one of optimism and possibilities. The growth rate had risen to 4.5%. Even though in 2015 the growth rate slowed down to 3%, the weakest since 2009, economists note that the continent’s economic pulse has hastened, permeating it with a new commercial vibrancy.
So what are the driving factors towards this progression? This shift can be attributed to a number of factors including; peace in most regions, democracy, education and financial inclusion, among other factors. Looking through these factors we cannot fail to recognize the role digital technology has had on it. It has played a significant role in transitioning the continent from the margins of inadequacy to the mainstream of development and global economy.
Over 67% of the population in the continent has a mobile phone
In 2000, there were less than 25 million mobile phones in Africa. A few years later, in 2012, mobile phone use had grown tremendously and there were over 650 Million mobile phone users. Today it is estimated that over 67% of the population has a mobile phone and 27% have a device that can access the internet. Africa is not only the fastest growing region when it comes to mobile phone usage, but it is also the cradle for creative innovations. With it comes the increase of startups and incubators for technology, with over 100 currently in the continent. Ranging from iHub and Nailab in Kenya, ActivSpaces in Cameroon, BongoHive in Zambia, MEST in Ghana, IceAddis in Ethiopia, and to Co-Creation hub in Nigeria; all these are harboring thousands of innovative minds creating technological solutions to the issues facing their regions. Digital technology has fostered democracy in many countries which is an ingredient to development.
Africa is no longer playing catch up in the technology revolution as we have our own Silicon Valley inspired networks and startups innovating and creating solutions to problems that have been deterring our development. Countries are shifting from resource based economies to entrepreneurial and information based economies partly facilitated by the availability of digital technologies. So how do we harness this potential at our disposal to catalyze development?
Digitalization of economies the way to go
Governments are realizing the potential that lies with digitalization of the economy. They are building infrastructures that support technology and are embracing more use of it in service delivery and governance. Even though this kind of change encounters obstacles at first, there has been positive feedback in places where they are implemented. For instance, government revenues in Kenya increased tremendously after it stopped cash payments and introduced mobile money payments in various government departments. This mode of payment sealed loopholes for bribery and public fund embezzlement. If this is replicated by other governments, in all departments and made mandatory, it will reduce corruption by a large margin and generate more revenues in government coffers.
Agriculture is not only the backbone of most African economies, but it is also the bread and butter of the people. There is a need to encourage more Africans into farming, provide farming information to existing farmers and, most of all, link farming to technology. At the moment, most farmers are subsistence farmers, growing only enough for themselves and their extended family. This is because of lack of storage and agri-business techniques. There are various mobile phone tools that are useful to this kind of farmer; for instance, in Kenya there is iCow and M-Farm, simple text services for farmers to get information on farming and query market prices for their products. These applications eliminate middlemen and enable farmers to maximize profits. Embracing of such platforms across the continent will create more self-reliant farmers, empower them economically and improve food security.
Digitalization of economies the way to go
The use of digital technology for education and information is also vital in creating a more empowered and developed continent. The availability of mobile phones and other digital gadgets gives us the opportunity to improve literacy levels. This will only succeed by governments integrating technology in school curriculum. Easy to use gadgets with learning kits should also be distributed to children and teachers in remote areas to boost learning. Education gets a big boost from the implementation of projects like eLimu and Eneza Education that takes interactive tablets to classrooms in low-income settlements and remote areas.
Provision of healthcare is also a major development issue in the continent. A huge percentage of health complications are due to preventable causes and negligence. This can be curbed using simple mobile text applications that create awareness. Some are already being implemented such as iDaktari, M-Tiba and M-Birth in rural Kenya where locally trained midwives update doctors on the medical conditions of their patients in real time. Accessing a medical facility in remote parts of the continent is hard and if this kind of technology is replicated widely then child mortality rates and general health will improve.
Mobile phones as a catalyst to provision of insurance policies
Insurance coverage has always been viewed as being for a select few in the continent as most policies only catered to a certain group. However, this is not the case anymore as various micro-insurance companies and mobile phone providers are offering insurance schemes targeting rural areas and low-income earners. This provides hope to millions who find themselves in need of financial mitigation when disaster befalls them through illness, death or destruction of property. This has already been implemented in Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. In Ghana, a pioneer and leading market for this, mobile phone subscribers for the various providers sign up at a local kiosk or directly by using a short-code on their handset. They then pay a monthly premium through a kiosk or direct deduction from their account.
Creating avenues for financial inclusion
Financial inclusion is essential in development and mobile phones offer great opportunities. A huge percentage of the African population is unbanked, creating the need for innovations that will help them save and or transfer their income. The solution for this is mobile money; a disruptive and transformative invention targeted at that bottom of the banking pyramid. With innovations such as M-Pesa, many can now access loans, save to raise capital, or invest in education and health. This channel has been used in disbursing resources to remote areas. Mobile money also creates investment opportunities for low income earners. For instance, at the start of this week the Central Bank of Kenya rolled out M-Akiba, a mobile phone service targeting ordinary Kenyans to invest in government bonds with as little as 3000 shillings($30). This is the world’s first mobile-only government bond and investors will earn an interest of up to 10% per annum. These bonds can be accessed by dialing a short-code and following a simple procedure. Mobile money provides many avenues for financial inclusion and if other players, such as stock markets, also follow suit to create products and educate low income earners on how the stock market operates, it will create economic empowerment.
Lack of electricity has been a major challenge in various parts of the continent, causing a huge setback in development. However, in recent years the continent has witnessed innovations that are lighting it up. Take for example, Mobisol, an off-grid solar home systems that provide electricity in Tanzania. The product, which targets rural and low income earners, combines solar energy with an affordable payment plan in which beneficiaries pay via mobile money. The power provided by Mobisol is enough to light LED lights, charge mobile phones radios, and a variety of household and consumer appliances. Their larger systems can also power small businesses, enabling entrepreneurial-minded customers to create additional streams of income such as barbershops and mobile charging businesses.
Even with these positive stories, growth inspired by digital technology still faces a myriad of challenges like lack of power, illiteracy on how to use, network reach, and lack of internet connectivity. However, we can still succeed by providing green energy solutions like solar panels, civic education on how to use the applications, and creating simple applications that do not need internet connectivity to function. More so, there is a need for partnerships between the various governments, private sector, and civil society in the digital space for development. With proper systems, digital technology is the sudden jolt that will lift poor Africans out of the cycle of poverty induced poverty, as well as bring about sustainable development even in remote areas of the continent.