From mobile e-payments, to helping pastoralists in remote communities find water for their livestock and apps that help mitigate against the spread of disease, technology has transformed the Horn of Africa as it has the rest of the continent. The last few years have shown that mobile telephony in particular plays a critical role in supporting people in Africa to respond to the myriad crises the continent faces. From the financial arena and humanitarian sector to diaspora remittances, the mobile phone is an indispensable part of development in 21st-century Africa. Indeed, many recent tech-based solutions in the continent, often mobile-led, are increasingly indigenous tools and platforms that show that crisis-affected people are best placed to utilise the power of technology on their own terms, and to imagine radical post-crisis futures. They know how to best respond to the challenges that face them, rather than the traditional technological solutions usually designed in the West by global tech giants that do not have a nuanced understanding of the local context or merely seek to profit from it.
Africa is a mobile-first continent, and the mobile phone has spurred countless innovations. From remittances, to mobile payments, e-health to reshaping youth culture. From Nairobi, Dar es Salaam to Lagos, the mobile phone is king in Africa, and is now indispensable in terms of communications. There are expected to be 360 million smartphones on the continent by 2025. In large part, mobile technology remains the key technology in Africa, because it is the primary vehicle through which people access the internet. More than 70% of internet users access the online world on their mobile phones. Mobile technology has enabled rural communities to access the internet for the first time. It has given resources to nomadic pastoralists in Kenya, boda boda motorcycle drivers in Uganda, and to large scale farmers in Zambia. In fact, for example mobile money payments are far more advanced in East Africa than in Europe or the US. Mobile phones have allowed millions of people in Africa to access financial systems, which otherwise would be out of their reach. Without a doubt, the tech revolution in the continent is a direct by-product of internet enabled smartphones that have had a transformative impact. This is something the global tech giants, investors and NGO organisations have only caught on more recently. Famously, no major Western bank would invest in Mo Ibrahim’s Celtel, the company that brought mobile telephony to the continent and which he sold in 2005 for $3.4 billion.
When it comes to the humanitarian sector, we have seen how the deployment of mobile technology has transformed how communities and NGO organisations respond to crises around droughts, natural disasters, climate change and conflict. The use of mobile phones has supported refugee communities cope with daily struggles in sprawling refugee camps and has allowed NGOs to allocate aid humanitarian assistance on the ground in places like South Sudan and Somalia. In Dadaab, in northern Kenya which is home to 217,000 Somalis, people in the camp have utilised mobile phones in all sorts of creative ways. They of course receive remittances from their relatives in the diaspora, but they also use free messaging apps like WhatsApp to read books. And Facebook and Telegram to find creative ways to respond to the daily challenges of living in what is the largest refugee camp in Africa.
In Dadaab, research has shown that school students use Facebook groups to get feedback on their work, while teachers use their phones to give presentations to their students. But, of course even in a refugee camp like this, mobile phones can be used for darker purposes. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic misinformation was easily spread via WhatsApp groups and SMS messaging with fake science about the virus circulating, such as that the virus does not affect Somalis or that five Islamic prayers will protect individuals against infection. This had an impact on mitigation efforts against the virus in one of the most densely packed places in the continent, but residents in the camp used Radio Gargar – the settlement’s only station – to share lifesaving information about the virus, which of course most people listened to on their mobile phones..
Moreover, mobile technology is also assisting NGOs to scale up their work in places like Dadaab. They are able to circumvent traditional non-digital methods of aid assistance to work directly with communities on the ground. They have deployed the power of technology to allow them to engage with and empower people that need humanitarian assistance. For example, mobile phones have been used in refugee camps to deliver education such as the Vodafone Instant Schools network, which through UNHCR delivers digital educational content and education to young refugees and their teachers. The programme operates in several countries, including Kenya, Egypt and South Sudan, and to date has reached 172,00 students and 1,600 teachers, with a goal of reaching 500,000 young refugees by 2025.
Another area where the use of mobile technology has played a vital role is for migrants on the move. Ever since, the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ of 2015, mobile phones have been a lifeline for the thousands of young Africans who make perilous journeys to Europe. They have used their phones to gain free access to WhatsApp, and Skype calls to their families. They have also used Facebook and Telegram on their smartphones to allow them to cross unfriendly borders, evade police, side-step smugglers, and connect to their companions and families back home.
Though the use of this type of technology has a darker side too. For example, it has been used in murky trafficking rings that abuse young Africans operated by trans-national criminal networks in places like Libya. On top of this, social media can also have a pull-factor in terms of creating an image of Europe in the minds of young people in the continent. Those that make it to Europe tend to share photos on social media of their lives as they wear baggy jeans, sportswear straight out of the rap hip-hop visual playbook, complete with caps and sunglasses giving an impression of life in Europe to those back home.
Whether mobile technology is being utilised for positive or negative purposes, the real issue remains the lack of mobile phone penetration in Africa. The growth of mobile telephony is being hampered by weak internet connectivity and unreliable access to electricity across the continent. Even if in recent years there has been improvements with mobile phones with better battery life, and a decrease in the cost of data and handset costs. There remain several key obstacles that can hamper the ability of mobile phones to drive tech transformation in Africa. For one thing, the lack of access to mobile phones in rural areas or conflict zones, means that millions of people in the continent do not have access to an internet connection. Without a sharp increase in the mobile phone penetration rates, then not enough people will be able to get online to benefit from digital opportunities or take part in the continent’s growing tech ecosystem. There are also issues around gender, as only 27% of women in the continent have access to the internet – without which they cannot receive information, education and opportunities that will hamper development goals on a number of issues from girls’ education, maternal health to economic opportunities.
On top of this, Africa has the fastest growing and youngest population in the world. In fact, the UN estimates that Africa’s population will double to 2.5 billion people by 2050, of which 400 million will be in Nigeria. To put this in perspective, a quarter of the world’s population will be African by mid-century, with that figure expected to grow to 4.4 billion by the end of the century. This dividend should be used, as Edward Paice writes in his excellent book, to better understand this ‘youthquake to allow policy makers and governments to see this growth as opportunity rather than a threat. In many ways, the youth bulge story is the great background to this African century. But without adequate planning and access to education, employment and opportunity, this growth might easily be squandered. African nations cannot maintain existing development gains and just stand still, African policymakers and businesses need to create tens of millions of new jobs each year for young Africans. If they are unable to do so, this will prompt more young Africans to move elsewhere in search of better opportunities.
But technology could play a role in helping mitigating against this, or at least in improving job prospects for young people in Africa. There is every chance that this youth bulge could yield massive dividends for Africa and it seems that the global tech giants are aware of this. In recent years, tech companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Amazon, have set up shop with investments in the hundreds of millions from Lagos, Nairobi to Johannesburg.
In Africa, we leapfrogged a whole stage of modern development such as telephone landlines, ATMs, and went straight to the mobile phone. In their pockets, people have all they need for any tech innovation. And things are really kicking off. In the last few years, the tech ecosystem in Africa has become one of the most exciting in the world. For example, there are 6 African startups listed among the 2022 World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers cohort. They include Okra, a Nigerian fintech startup which specialises in digital financial transactions in the continent and Access Afya, a Kenyan healthcare startup. These technologies have been deployed by those in the diaspora to help with humanitarian assistance. E-commerce is worth a huge amount to the diaspora, from remitting money – mobile telephony is allowing them to bypass traditional ways of doing things, which has often been via Western-centric financial platforms or institutions.
The space of technological innovations in Africa is expanding rapidly. There is a growing list of innovative projects that are leading the way to show how African-solutions for African-issues can be led by and for those on the continent. Take the example of the STEM Impact Centre of Kenya, where in July I spent time with it’s founder, Alex Magu, who is using creative forms of technology as a way to teach robotics and coding to young people in Kenya. Mr. Magu is proud that his not-for-profit centre is Kenyan owned and operated. He says he is driven by a “passion to democratise computer science in Kenya”. At the STEM Impact Center Mr Magu fosters an awareness in STEM subjects through schools-based programmes on coding and robotics. He deploys some of this learning via mobile phones, utilising messaging systems in particular for children in rural areas who do not have access to computers or tablets but only their parents’ mobile phones. What makes his centre so unique is that it allows young people to be able to tinker with technology, in a safe space with other young people. Inspired by the success of his programme in Kenya, Mr Magu is currently working on programme with REACT a refugee NGO that works in Sudan, which is helping set up a pilot led by the ‘spiderman’ of Sudan in Khartoum.
But the trouble Mr Magu says is that the tech scene in Kenya is often associated with foreigners who tend to dominate the start-up scene and often receive the most funding. In fact, Kenya is known as a major tech-hub in Africa often dubbed ‘Silicon Savannah’ – many tech giants have set up shop such as Microsoft, Amazon and Google, which in April opened its Africa Product Development Centre in Nairobi, as part of a $1 billion investment drive in the continent over the next five years.
There is growing evidence in Africa that technology can allow local communities to better respond to crisis. In fact, technology may aid the localisation efforts that international NGOs have thus far failed to deliver, and have backslided on, as I wrote about in August. Unfortunately, the use of technological tools by NGOs, global tech giants can often feel like a gimmick or an administrative afterthought. In Africa, when it comes to the humanitarian sector, questions of agency, control and access are never far away. In the last few years there have been fears of tech companies as ‘Africa’s new colonialist’, as a piece by FT Africa Editor, David Pilling noted in 2019. In the piece, he talks about how companies like Jumia, a food delivery app, have had their African credentials questioned as the owners and capital are in Europe, and thus not really ‘African’. Furthermore, there have been claims that tech start-up founders use the ‘Africa’ tag as a marketing ploy, raising money on the back of, but in fact they act as mercenary capitalists driven by a lust for easy profits. This all seems to fit into centuries long history of Europeans profiting off the backs of Africans. For example, a 2018 study reported in the FT of start-ups in East Africa, showed that 90 percent of funds had gone to foreigners
Beyond all of this there are other dangers too on the horizon — for example the technological decoupling between China and USA might hamper the efforts to grow mobile phone penetration in Africa. The Asian giant is the single largest mobile phone distributor in Africa and its role is essential if the continent is to reap the benefits of its technological potential. Projections show that Africa’s internet economy has the potential to grow to $180 billion by 2025, which is about 5.2% of the continent’s GDP. But if this is to happen then the infrastructure around the internet has to be developed to allow people and business to profit from tech and mobile based solutions. Without a doubt Africa is a future tech power that has the opportunity to tap into a limitless potential. But if the continent is to truly address the many crises it faces, then not only must more of its people have access to mobile phones. They must also be free to master their own tech and mobile ecosystems on their own terms.