Recently, when a potato disease ravaged Kenya, farmer Zack Matere searched “potato disease” on the Internet and discovered that ants were eating his potato stems. On the same Web site, Matere found that the cure for his potato disease was to sprinkle wood ash on the crop. Two months later, his potatoes were back to shape and Matere knew it was time to invest in the Internet. Online, he found a local buyer for his rescued crop. He now uses an Internet-enabled telephone to get real-time potato prices. All this happened in a region that only five years ago the Economist magazine referred to as the “dark continent” because of its lack of electricity.
Technology started to influence the way Africa develops in a big way with the introduction of GSM services in the late 1990s. A mobile revolution has positioned Africa as the fastest growing region on Earth for the telecoms industry, and with it has come a significant shift — a recognition among African governments and people that an opportunity exists to leap the development gap through the implementation of technological solutions to some of the challenges facing the continent.
For many people in the rest of the world, life without the Internet is hard to imagine. In Nigeria, many still remember lining up to use a Nitel (the country’s national operator) phone in villages. In 2001, a SIM card cost approximately US$100 and local calls cost US$0.33 per minute. By 2009, you could buy a SIM card for US$1.33 (a 98.6 percent reduction) and calls had reduced to US$0.24 per minute. Billions of dollars of investment flooded in and, according to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), active subscriber numbers in Nigeria exceeded 100 million lines earlier this year.
This explosion in mobile telephony preceded, and in many ways caused, an explosion in the number of Nigerians using the Internet as a tool to communicate and to do business. The GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association) has estimated that, in 2009, more than 31 million Nigerians accessed the Web, with 30 percent or more doing so via mobile phones. From free instant messaging services that removed the relatively high cost of sending an SMS to the development of local applications to solve local problems, the Internet and its access platforms are at the heart of emerging businesses.
New technology has the power to influence economic development as well as political accountability in numerous ways. As the experience of Zack Matere demonstrates, simple access to information can be fundamental to development. Likewise, in Ethiopia, the launch of a revolutionary new commodities exchange in 2008 was designed to provide real-time information to the country’s smallholder farmers, who constitute 80 percent of the population and who were generally only aware of the price of their commodities at local markets. An automated toll-free telephone service now provides updated prices by the minute.
Businesses are also beginning to tap into the desire of millions of its consumers to access entertainment online. One of the best examples is in Nigeria, where the stunning success of Real Nolly Movies provides a benchmark for budding technology entrepreneurs across the continent.
Launched as a YouTube channel in March, Real Nolly has the digital distribution rights to hundreds of Nigeria’s hugely popular Nollywood films, making them available to viewers free of charge. Already the channel is receiving millions of views and generating considerable monthly advertising revenues while helping to promote legal distribution of Nigerian content.