Sun, Nov 04, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Digital revolution lights up Africa

Mobile services are transforming access to finance and information across the world’s poorest continent

By David Smith and Toby Shapshak  /  The Guardian, Johannesburg

Illustration: Lance Liu

As a teenager Noe Diakubama made a sketch of Mbandaka, on the Congo River, so as not to get lost in the forest while picking a vegetable called fumbwa. “I remember never having seen a map of the city,” he says.

Thirty years later, maps of the city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) are still in short supply. So Diakubama decided to create the first one of his home city. He spent hours at his computer in Brussels, where he now lives, using Google’s Map Maker software and entering the streets he could recall. He hired an assistant to tour Mbandaka by bike and name the streets on a copy of the map.

Diakubama’s efforts have been replicated across Africa by scores of amateur mapmakers who have collectively pinpointed hundreds of thousands of roads, cities and buildings in remote areas ignored by colonial cartographers. This is just one example of how the digital revolution has not only caught up in Africa, but is in some respects moving faster and differently from the in the West.

“New technologies are in the process of transforming the lives of people,” Diakubama said.

“Mobile telephony has equipped our lives by allowing communication between cities and villages without having to move; to announce a death in the family, for example,” he said.

“Mobile telephony is a true revolution in a country where the landline was restricted to a few families,” he said.

In Africa, necessity is the mother of invention. Instead of sharing photos on Instagram or hobbies on Pinterest, you are more likely to find a service to send money to a rural relative, or to monitor cows’ gestation cycles, or for farmers to find out where they can get the best price for their goods. Technology in Africa is foremost about solving problems rather than sharing social trivia, about survival rather than entertainment — although these tools are flourishing too.

South Africa hosted the third annual Tech4Africa conference, in Johannesburg on Oct. 31, attracting innovators and entrepreneurs from a dozen countries. Among the speakers were Sim Shagaya, a Nigerian-born Harvard graduate planning to create the “Amazon of Africa,” selling Lagos’ increasingly affluent consumer class everything from refrigerators and perfume to cupcakes. His previous venture, DealDey, which offers Groupon-style deals, is now the top-grossing e-commerce site in Nigeria with 350,000 subscribers.

The forum was also addressed by Mbwana Alliy, the Tanzanian founder of an Africa-focused technology venture capital fund, and Verone Mankou of the DR Congo who designed a tablet computer that sells for a third of the price of Apple’s iPad. Mankou, 26, has also launched an African smartphone, the Elikia, which means “hope” in the Lingala language.

Tech4Africa is the brainchild of Gareth Knight, a 35-year-old South African based in London.

“If you remember in Britain in 2002 to 2004, you would see the vans for ISPs [Internet service providers] installing broadband,” he said. “Everyone was getting online even if they still had to use an Internet cafe.”

“What happened in the UK and the US at the turn of the century is now happening in Africa on the mobile platform. It’s being driven by social and commercial utility needs — for example, when people want to send money,” Knight said.

“The market is much bigger than the original one in the UK and the US. More and more people are going to get online in the next couple of years and they’ll want all the same things,” he added.

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