African entrepreneurs are applying new ideas to IT innovation in ways that could help the continent to leapfrog global competition.
The great Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote more than 2,300 years ago that “something new always comes out of Africa.” Among the stream of wonders emanating from Africa that he and his contemporaries marvelled at were new ideas and concepts.
Bound by the colonial interregnum, which for centuries thwarted creative ideas, Africans are beginning to break the chains. We are seeing an explosion of innovation across the breadth of the continent. The pace of innovation has been so rapid that even organisations like the African Center for Economic Transformation, where we’re helping to lead the discussion on transformation, have sometimes found it difficult to keep pace with everything new coming “out of Africa.”
Africa’s new flowering of innovation has been catalysed by what is now acknowledged as the greatest technological leap in modern human history — the IT revolution.
Africans have not only embraced the mobile phone with an astonishing zeal and enthusiasm, they have taken possession of it and turned it into an outstanding tool of innovation.
It was Kenya’s Safaricom that turned the mobile phone into such an effective and efficient system of money transfer that it has stood all previous systems on their heads. The mobile service provider called the system M-PESA (pesa means money in Kiswahili) and thereby coined a new word and concept, bringing millions of the unbanked into the formal monetary system.
Such innovation is also spawning competition. For example, Equity, Kenya’s country’s largest bank, has announced a plan to hand out more than 300,000 near-field communication (NFC) smartphones to Kenyan retailers for free.
From Delhi to London, finance entrepreneurs are replicating some of the new IT-enabled banking systems in their own stomping grounds.
Young African techies, with the world at their fingertips, are interconnecting across continents. An engineering student in Abidjan can share ideas with a techpreneur in Tel Aviv in real time and raise money on Kickstarter if the idea is worthwhile.
Innovation hubs are springing up all over the continent. The World Bank has identified 90 tech hubs around the region; Kenya, “the Silicon Valley of Africa,” has plans to launch a hub in each of its 43 counties; and the Botswana Innovation Hub is supported by the government. Information and communications technology (ICT) business incubators, such as the Nokia Greenhouse Nairobi or infoDev’s mLabs, help startups get off the ground.
For innovators in Africa, as anywhere else, startup funding is always a problem. But again, young Africans have been turning, successfully, to crowdfunding models. For example, StartSomeGood focuses on several sectors, including health and wellness. Several high-profile international innovation conferences in places like Uganda and Cape Verde are bringing global “angel” investors and innovators together for mutual benefit. The continent’s giant mobile service providers like MTN and Airtel are now prepared to fund independent startups rather than view them as competitors, while international companies like Google, IBM, GE, Oracle and others continue to provide support and training to the growing army of young African innovators.
On the principle that the most enduring innovations come out of necessity, a whole slew of apps designed to solve everyday problems in Africa are popping up. These include agro-based apps such as iCow, which provides Kenyan ranchers with crucial information on the most efficient way to produce milk, and Rural eMarket, which provides indispensable information to farmers in Madagascar.
Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia are driving innovation in mHealth. Several apps, such as PREVENT, can detect and warn against counterfeit drugs — a dangerous problem in Africa.
Rwanda is unfolding TRACnet, an app that supplies vital information on all HIV programmes in the country, while, in Uganda, mTrack monitors medical supplies in clinics across the country. In Mali, rural clinics can forward scans and X-rays to specialists via the internet.
In a continent hungry for education, innovative systems are spreading the benefits of learning deep into hitherto remote areas. For example, eLimu is an interactive educational platform with digital localised content for Kenya’s primary school curriculum. The application combines educational content with locally produced and culturally relevant videos, animations, songs, music, games and quizzes to improve learning and assessment outcomes.
But the innovations around the continent go beyond mobile apps. Dr. Patience Mthunzi, Africa’s only doctor of biophotonics, is using lasers to develop diagnostics tools for diseases. Togolese Dr. Victor Agbegnenou’s polyvalent wireless communication system is being tested as a method to connect medical labs throughout the continent. Also in Togo, Sam Kodo is building low-cost computers and smartphones, while a group of young ‘recyclers’ has constructed a 3-D printer.
In Nigeria, iROKOtv helps “Nollywood” film producers avert piracy by streaming directly to viewers’ phones and computers.
The list goes on…
I did not imagine anything close to this in 1996, when I was running the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and worked with African ministers of state to launch the African Information Society Initiative (AISI) as a comprehensive regional ICT-for-development framework. Since then, AISI has widely been cited as one of the sparks of Africa’s ICT revolution.
What has happened since then is a fascinating manifestation of leapfrogging — young Africans are not only leapfrogging decades of technological gap with advanced economies, they are leapfrogging the inefficiencies of their own governments and the absence of traditional infrastructure to do so.
They are a vital, dynamic and essential component of the great African transition story, and we are working to try and ensure that this creative spark permeates to all other sectors of Africa.
(Top image: Courtesy of eLimu, by Nathan Heidt —positive6.com)
K.Y. Amoako is President of the African Center for Economic Transformation.