LONDON — Innovation is happening all over Africa in all different sectors, from education to energy, banking to agriculture. Installing a traditional fixed-line telecoms infrastructure made no economic sense across huge, sparsely populated, and sometimes difficult to cross terrains.
The mobile phone — particularly cheap “feature phones” such as the Nokia 1100 and the Samsung E250 — offered sufficient functionality combined with long battery life.
In a continent where access to electricity is still patchy, particularly in non-urban areas, battery life and energy-frugal applications are key. This is why so many essential mobile services in Africa are based around the SMS texting platform.
Information is power, and before mobiles came along, access to data was limited for millions of Africans.
But by the end of 2014, more than 600 million people –– about 56 percent of the population –– are likely to own a mobile phone, with some researchers estimating penetration could reach 80 percent.
When you consider that just one percent owned a mobile in 2000, the rate of growth seems all the more astonishing. There are now more than 35 mobile network operators in Africa busily extending their base station networks to improve coverage.
Foreign companies are waking up to the commercial opportunities this presents.
“Large, multinational consumer goods companies are now looking for ways to reach their customers and employees in Africa through mobile channels, and are viewing South Africa as a gateway to the rest of the continent,” says Tielman Botha, South Africa country lead for Accenture Mobility.
Even though nearly two-thirds of these phones will be accessing 2G and SMS networks rather than the faster 3G and 4G, the range of services they can access is impressive.
Whether it is farmers accessing local market prices for their produce to arm themselves against profiteering middlemen, or nurses, doctors and patients accessing medical monitoring and data services, mobiles and wireless devices are transforming lives.
But it is as a payments platform that the mobile has really blossomed in Africa.
Vodafone and Safaricom’s M-Pesa mobile payments system, launched in 2007, now handles about 1.15 trillion Kenyan Shillings (M1.41billion) a year — that’s 35 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product.
M-Pesa is now expanding across Africa, and has also launched in India, Afghanistan and Romania, while other mobile network operators have launched their own mobile banking services.
People can pay for solar lighting, water, groceries and other goods, and also receive credits and person-to-person money transfers via their mobiles.
Such payment systems — and the digital audit trails they leave — are also proving useful for governments tackling tax evasion and corporations combating fraud.
While mobile phone operators, such as Unitel in Angola, are beginning to roll out high-speed cellular broadband, this does require users to upgrade to more expensive smartphones and tablets.
So Microsoft’s 4Afrika initiative is trying another way to bring broadband to rural and other unconnected communities.
It is using so-called TV white spaces, those unused parts of the wireless spectrum usually used for television, to provide internet connectivity.
Radio signals in the TV bands travel over longer distances than other radio signals and are less prone to interference from obstacles in their way. This means fewer base stations are needed, reducing costs.
Lack of widespread broadband internet is one problem; lack of education, training and skills is another.
About 21 million children are not in school across Africa, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
“Without this connectivity we will never be competitive — ever,” says Farouk Gumel, partner at consultancy PwC Nigeria.
As and when such ubiquitous connectivity is achieved, young people also need to be taught how to use these technologies and understand their potential, Ms Harry believes.
Her academy teaches “technology, entrepreneurship and life skills to young people” and is looking at the potential for “3D printing to transform the African continent from an ‘Aid to Africa’ to a ‘Made in Africa’ model”.
For Africa, it seems, necessity may be the mother of invention, but technology is its father.