The rapid uptake of mobile technology in Africa has, for some time, been the source of much excitement. In less than twenty years the continent “leapfrogged” landline telecommunications to enlist half a billion mobile subscribers. Such a feat of digital acrobatics fuelled the narrative, started by Aristotle 2300 years ago, that out of Africa there is always something new.
But we also know the hard truth: that access and usage is highly uneven, generally skewed to younger, urban males. While mobile and the internet has changed the lives of millions of Africans through access — for the first time — to money services, health and agriculture information, and communication with far-off family, there are still millions of people completely untouched by these modern opportunities.
Figures about tech in Africa belie the inequalities that persist. In fact, we shouldn’t really talk of Africa, like it’s a country, but rather talk of some tech, used by some people, in some parts of some countries in Africa.
But if we must generalise for the sake of expediency, then we know that for a time there will be a tale of two Africas: one as the hub of bottom-up invention, and another as the internet-dark continent. Since so many of us see our work in Africa, it is timely to take stock of both sides of this story, to see how much has been achieved — and with such innovation — and remember how far there is still to go. Tech in Africa affects us all, not only the people living there.
The Big Picture View
A good place to start is the Guardian’s Can the internet reboot Africa?, which offers a big picture view of the many inroads of tech on the continent. “But there are buts. Many of them.” These include lack of electricity — apparently only about a third of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to grid power; prohibitively high mobile data costs; limited mobile access in rural areas; not enough local content and too few skilled software developers. All of these issues take time to address (except cost!) and need to be tackled holistically.
A report this month by the Internet Society paints a picture of the internet economy in Africa, and provides policy advice on how to grow it to its much greater potential.
The Personal Touch
Zooming right in, the Guardian also offers a day in the digital life of Africa, which tells how tech is affecting ten different people across the continent. From a tech-savvy radio DJ in Lagos to a deep rural farmer in Zimbabwe, digital is having a remarkable effect on their lives. It would be fascinating to have ICT4D project leads send in “day in the life” stories of their users.
How Africa’s Tech Generation Is Changing the Continent
Changing focus from users to creators, National Geographic tells the personal stories of successful young tech entrepreneurs in Africa. You may know some of the initiatives featured, such as Kigali’s SafeMoto and Kenya’s FarmDrive, but the article is well worth the read. And being NG, the photo’s are beautiful.
Hubs, Hubs, Hubs
There are 300 tech hubs in 93 cities across 42 countries in Africa. Those are impressive statistics, considering there were almost none a decade ago! Three countries, in fact three cities, stand out as hub concentrations: Cape Town, Nairobi and Lagos. The last is taking the lead as startup capital of Africa, with Google and Facebook both setting up developer centres there. The one I’m most excited about is unique: the recently launched Injini is Africa’s first incubator dedicated to edtech. Right now it is based Cape Town, but plans are afoot to have East and West African centres.
New Kids on the Block
While we love the darling tech stories of Africa, such as mPESA, BRCK and GetSmarter, what about the new products and services? Ventures Africa shares ten African tech for good startups to watch, grouped under three umbrellas: education equality, economic empowerment and access to medical care.
Image: © CC-BY-NC-ND Arne Hoel / World Bank