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

Sun, Nov 04, 2012 - Page 9

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.

In the world’s poorest continent, only one-in-three people have access to electricity, but far more have a mobile phone. Africa is the fastest growing region for mobile phones in the world, and the largest market after Asia, according to the GSM Association. There are now an estimated 700 million SIM cards in Africa.

Mobile phones overcome some of the endemic problems that have stifled progress on the continent; poor infrastructure (both in transport and power transmission), sparsely populated rural areas and widespread poverty.

The basic feature phones, that are still the most popular, are vital for this environment. With small non-touch screens they have a long battery life, though still people find innovative ways to recharge them, for example using car batteries.

Most have an FM radio, still the greatest communications medium in the developing world, and many have a small torch.

In east Africa, “mobile money” is used as frequently as paper money — the region accounts for four-fifths of the world’s mobile payment transactions. Using text messages it is possible to send money to another mobile phone that can then be cashed at tens of thousands of participating agents. It is estimated that half of Kenya’s GDP moves in this way, mostly using the pioneering service M-Pesa, which has 14 million users.

Mobile phones have fostered communication like no other technology ever before, linking villages in a split second that would previously have taken days to reach on foot or by road. Information services via text message allow farmers to learn more about best practices, market prices and weather conditions. The unemployed can subscribe to text alerts about job vacancies instead of having to travel.

Alan Knott-Craig, a 35-year-old South African tech entrepreneur, said: “It’s lighting up the dark continent. People are talking with each other. In the old days, you couldn’t talk to your family if you were a migrant worker; now you can. The next level is money. When you light it up with money, you’re giving people social freedom as well as economic freedom.”

Local entrepreneurs in hubs such as Accra, Cape Town, Lagos and Nairobi have the advantage of knowing Africa’s particular needs when competing with the Silicon Valley giants. Numerous social networks specifically for mobile phones have sprung up, offering cheap or free communication for their users. Mxit and 2go from South Africa have 44 million and 20 million users respectively, the latter mostly in Nigeria. Others like Motribe and FrontlineSMS offer virtual communities.

According to the Internet World Stats Web site, Africa still has the world’s lowest Internet penetration rate at 15.6 percent. Desktop PCs and tablets such as the iPad are relatively rare and have been leapfrogged by the more appropriate technology offered by the mobile phone. For example, in conflict-riven Somalia fierce and unregulated competition has made mobile phones affordable and prevalent, whereas Internet penetration stands at just 1.14 percent of the population.

Among Africa’s broadband-linked minority, Facebook and Twitter, blogs and online magazines, music and video sharing sites, are thriving. That includes the political realm: Atrocities that might once have been hidden by an authoritarian regime can be quickly exposed to a global audience, while the follies of leaders are held up to scrutiny and mockery as never before. Shrewd politicians such as Rwandan president Paul Kagame have created their own accounts to remain connected and avoid the kind of mass mobilization seen in the Arab spring.

“The mobile is going to bring in a huge amount of transparency and information sharing that Africa has never had before,” Knight said. “Socially and politically, that levels the playing field. People are not going to be able to say things that aren’t true; propaganda won’t work any more.

“I strongly believe this is the time when technology can make the most difference in people’s lives. There are five-to-nine-year-olds today who, by the time they are 20, will have technology so embedded that the old Africa won’t exist for them,” he said.

Africa’s top tweeters

By David Smith

The Guardian, Johannesburg

Nana Akufo-Addo (@nadaa2012)

Leader of the New Patriotic Party and presidential candidate in Ghana.

1,640 tweets, 35 following, 6,132 followers.

The opposition leader is hoping social media can propel him to victory in forthcoming elections. One of numerous recent tweets declared: “In #48days, we will go to the polls to decide between two profoundly different visions for the future of #Ghana. #VoteNana2012.”

David Coltart (@DavidColtart)

Education, sport, arts and culture minister in Zimbabwe.

2,962 tweets, 280 following, 6,600 followers.

The Movement for Democratic Change politician regularly tackles politics and sport. “’The Minister is sleep WORKING on duty,’ Zanu PF’s Jonathan Moyo blaming me for the Warriors loss against Angola in the Herald today!”

Paul Kagame (@PaulKagame)

President of Rwanda.

2,161 tweets, 0 following, 82,510 followers

Kagame was involved in an infamous Twitter spat with British journalist Ian Birrell, who tweeted that Kagame was “despotic” and “deluded”. The president hit back: “Not you either ... no moral right! You give yourself the right to abuse pple and judge them like you r the one to decide ...”

Uhuru Kenyatta (@UKenyatta)

Deputy prime minister of Kenya.

1,364 tweets, 48 following, 76,169 followers.

When finance minister, Kenyatta reportedly asked his followers for input into the budget. However, not every post by the politician, facing a trial at the international criminal court, is riveting: “Had a great time with my wife at the James Ingram concert last night. Have a blessed Sunday as we prepare for the week ahead.”

January Makamba (@JMakamba)

Deputy minister of communication, science and technology in Tanzania.

6,044 tweets, 1,956 following, 18,968 followers.

Engages in politics, humor and philosophy. Recent tweets include: “Permanent Secretary. When a job title starts with the word ‘Permanent’, there will be problems” and “I’m a Muslim. My Mom is devout Catholic. She prays for us everyday. She covers herself and participate when we have Dua. We can coexist.”

Julius Malema (@Julius_S_Malema)

Former president of the African National Congress youth league in South Africa.

4,810 tweets, 103 following, 234,486 followers.

This firebrand populist used to dismiss Twitter and there were several hoax accounts in his name. Now making up for lost time with declarations such as: “I will never be intimidated by those who r playing to the gallery and seeking attention at my expense. I shall remain focused and unshaken.”

Lindiwe Mazibuko (@LindiMazibuko)

Leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance in the South African parliament.

4,667 tweets, 432 following, 36,612 followers.

One of the most active tweeters and re-tweeters in South African politics, with a sprinkling of personal commentary: “Yep. CT [Cape Town] Airport is now where I catch up on grooming! :- @jo_annstrauss Quick pedicure at King Shaka airport - 10 minutes before boarding!”

Welshman Ncube (@Welshman_Ncube)

Commerce and industry ministry in Zimbabwe and leader of the breakaway faction the Movement for Democratic Change.

2,633 tweets, 6,892 following, 7,017 followers.

Ncube offers an insight into the daily frustrations of working in a coalition government with President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, and of life in general: “In 4 weeks’ time, everything stops in the country. Mid-Nov xmas mood takes over n decision-makers will be off to shiny ships in the sea.”

Raila Odinga (@RailaOdinga)

Prime minister of Kenya.

1,146 tweets, 81 following, 85,799 followers.

A prolific tweeter with 23 messages posted on Oct. 18 alone. The focus is mainly policy and patriotism. He may have won some votes by stating: “I would like to make it clear as I did this past weekend that I am against the MP’s gratuity bonus.”

Helen Zille (@helenzille)

Western Cape premier and leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance.

13,986 tweets, 1,843 following, 188,283 followers.

Zille has sometimes proved trigger-happy and gaffe-prone. She referred to Eastern Cape pupils who flocked to the Western Cape for a better education as “refugees” and described musician Simphiwe Dana as a “professional black.”

Note: Twitter statistics accurate at mid-October.