The sleeping giant finally awakes. And all it took was a cell phone…
Africa has for the past few centuries been commonly referred to as ‘the dark continent’ for multiple reasons ranging from the literal patch of mostly darkness that it is from space at night to the color of its indigenous people. The main reason it received this label however was one utilizing the word ‘dark’ not in a literal manner but as a euphemism for primitive and backward. Unenlightened if you will. It has been for a long time the least technologically developed continent –perhaps with the exception of the polar ice caps. And yet this wasn’t always the case. Three millenniums ago this was the home of one of the greatest, most technologically advanced ancient civilizations in human history. Ancient Egyptians were at the technological fore-front of humanity. They mechanized their lives and built incredible structures using simple machines to carry out complicated processes. Structures that to this day stand as wonders of the world and tributes to human ingenuity (in this case, African ingenuity). So what happened? How did the African continent come from the greatness that was Ancient Egypt to ‘the dark continent’? A subject for another day but knowing that it did is enough for the purposes of this text.
McKinsey estimates Africa’s gross domestic product at about US $2.6 trillion, with US $1.4 in consumer spending. Africa’s population growth and urbanization rates are among the highest in the world and these are the statistics generating demand for innovative new ways to handle the problems they raise.
Ten years ago, Africa realized it had a desperate need for communication. However, this being Africa they couldn’t just settle for any system. They needed one that could seep into the very grassroots of its remote environments. Landlines and fax machines would work for offices and homes but what about out in the villages? Where there was no power in the houses or in the case of nomadic tribes no steady houses to even speak of? Necessity is the mother of invention and where there is a need, there is a solution. The answer was simple. Cell phones. And yet since the cell phones were being made by outsiders Africans had to do even more to adapt them specifically to their unique environment with its very specific set of challenges and needs. This led to finely customized solutions mainly on the digital front. Mobile software platforms emerged and suddenly there were developers coming out of Africa but these developers weren’t making the regular stuff. They were doing strange things with the code. Attempting to make it do things no one had really thought of before. They were using it to solve fundamental problems that lay at the heart of life on their continent. Soon, they were mass-tracking and mapping real-time events and banking the unbanked with a new independent banking system built entirely around mobile phones. All first class innovations from third world innovators.
The irony here was that people in first world countries would one day demand exactly the same thing not because they were faced with any of the challenges that led to their creation but because the fundamental need was the same. Freedom, mobility and adaptability. And so begun the leap. In the mid to late 80s when Europe and North America were under Microsoft’s siege to “put a computer on every desk” most of Africa was still using pen and paper for everything. Most Africans never bought a desktop computer. Quite a few bought laptops. On the other hand they are now buying smart phones and tablets in droves. As indicated by the authors of the paper titled “Information Technology in Africa: A Proactive Approach”, African countries have bypassed several stages in the use of ICTs. On the technology front, Africans have accelerated development by skipping less efficient technologies and moving directly to more advanced ones. If you look at it on the basis of who has spent the least money in the last decade and yet still has the best hardware then it would be the African who bought an iPad 2 after the price drop in February 2012 and not the American executive who has bought everything at every stage because unlike the African they could afford to. Yes, they were left out and fell back during the desktop era but they started catching up during the laptop age and now they are truly coming into their element on the mobile arena –which thankfully is now the only place where it actually counts.
A Cisco study predicts that by 2015, more than 5.6 billion personal devices will be connected to mobile networks, and there will also be 1.5 billion machine-to-machine nodes (nearly the equivalent of one mobile connection for every person in the world). Networking giant Cisco predicts an exponential growth in mobile data traffic in Africa. The Middle East and Africa are expected to experience the largest regional growth, with an expected 129 percent compound annual growth rate projected in the Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI) Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast for 2010 to 2015. According to the Strategy Director at Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group Mr. Reshaad Sha, consumers and business users continue to demonstrate a healthy demand for mobile data services. The fact that global mobile data traffic increased 2.6-fold from 2009 to 2010, nearly tripling for the third year in a row, confirms the strength of the mobile Internet. The seemingly endless bevy of new mobile devices, combined with greater mobile broadband access, more content, and applications of all types (especially video) are the key catalysts driving this remarkable growth and Africa is right up there.
According to industry estimates, there are more than 500 million (half a billion) mobile phone subscribers in Africa now, up from 246 million in 2008. In 2000, the number of mobile phones first exceeded that of fixed telephones. In 2008, imports of data enabled phones for the first time exceeded that of non-data enabled phones in many African markets. In 2009, the undersea cables hit East and Southern Africa in a big way. In 2010, mobile operators became serious about data availability and cost packaging for everyday Africans. 2011 brought a new type of data-enabled mobile device. The tablet. The four biggest mobile phone markets in Africa are Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, and Ghana. You will notice that the top 3 have already risen to prominence as ICT technology and innovations hubs on the continent and this is not a coincidence. Why? Because Africa is all about mobile. So much so that international companies from other continents have taken serious note and started to not only migrate but commit serious resources to solidify their position in Africa. A glance at the list of strategic investors in Africa’s mobile industry today will show names like Finland’s Nokia, America’s Motorola, Google’s ANDROID, India’s Bharti Airtel, France Telecom, Britian’s Vodafone and Luxembourg’s Millicom. They all know exactly what they’re doing and this is why they are landing on Africa’s shores.
Developing –especially for mobile is huge in Africa. As I write this there have been two hackathons held in Nairobi in the past month and a third one being held in 2 days. All of these have been for developers in the mobile field with prizes ranging from thousands of dollars in cash to listing in app stores on major platforms such as Android and Nokia’s Ovi Store. With this critical pace building up it’s no shock that African applications are winning international competitions and where mobile is concerned all signs indicate that the future is only going to get brighter for the once dark continent.
All tech companies internationally agree on the fact that mobile is the future. Africa is nothing if not mobile therefore, Africa is the future. I once heard someone say that the next piece of killer code is just as likely to be written in Africa as anywhere else in the world. Well as an insider of the African tech community myself and having seen the stuff we and people around us are working on, I can now with a healthy amount of confidence confirm that statement. The next piece of killer code is being written as we speak and I assure you that it is being written on African soil.
Post by: @the_kageni_mind
Kageni Wilson (@the_kageni_mind) is an Innovator, Writer & Tech entrepreneur. He is the Founder & CEO of ionacloud (a free-to-use Personal Cloud Computer and virtual PC environment available at www.ionacloud.com). He lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya & is an avid Cloud and Africa 2.0 evangelist. You can reach him via twitter or email: email@example.com