Technology in Africa The pioneering continent

By Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2016. All rights reserved.

ARE small cargo drones the answer to some of Africa’s most pressing problems? A group of European engineers supported by IBM thinks so. Christened “flying donkeys” and now in development, the drones will carry 10kg (22 pounds) of cargo each over distances of up to 120km (75 miles) to supply medicine to remote communities or food to refugees. They are designed to be cheap and rugged enough to deploy across the continent, and could perhaps serve as a proving ground for retailers like Amazon that are unable to experiment as freely in the rich world because of strict regulations. Test flights are planned in Africa for later this year. The continent is regarded as an ideal arena because its airspace is not congested, and because poor roads mean that demand for cheap air cargo is immense.

Experiments such as this underscore a remarkable change taking place in Africa. A continent that has long accepted technological hand-me-downs from the West is increasingly innovating for itself. To be sure, much of this is made possible by technological advances elsewhere. Mobile phones are common today in even the most remote African villages. Ericsson, a technology company, estimates that the number of mobiles will rise to 930m by 2019, almost one per African. The spread of smartphones, some of which now cost as little as $25, is likely to push internet penetration to 50% within a decade.

This is now allowing Africans to go beyond merely copying technology used elsewhere or adapting it to fit African circumstances. In some cases, firms are generating innovations that can also be used in rich countries. Mobile money is the best example. A technology that long struggled to gain a foothold in the West (though mobile payments now seem to be taking off after the introduction of Apple Pay) has transformed economies in places such as Kenya, where millions of unbanked people have been brought into the financial system. This in turn has spurred yet another wave of innovation.

Firms are using mobile money to sell life-insurance policies, some to people with infections such as HIV. Phones not only reduce the cost of collecting small premiums but also allow insurers to remind customers to take their medicine. Another innovator is Olam, a Singapore-listed farm-commodity firm. It has signed up 30,000 farmers in Tanzania as suppliers of coffee, cotton and cocoa through a mobile-phone system, boosting profitability for all.

New technologies could also make a great difference in education. Although firms around the world are developing smartphone and iPad apps to teach children to read, write and do sums, these innovations promise to have a far greater impact in Africa, where education systems are weak and children often have to walk long distances or pay prohibitive fees to attend school.

Apps and e-learning schools are no match for the best state or private ones, but only a tiny elite has access to those. Compared with the run-of-the-mill schools that most Africans attend, they look impressive. The main advantage of using technology to teach is that it reduces the impact of two common failings in many ordinary schools in Africa: teacher absenteeism and minimal adherence to the curriculum. Among the firms embracing such innovation is Bridge International Academies, partly funded by Pearson, co-owner of The Economist. It has more than 100,000 nursery and primary pupils in Kenya, paying about $5 a month to attend low-cost schools that use technology to follow standardised curriculums.

Technology companies are also having an impact on African societies by transforming the media. The 300,000 residents of the Kenyan city of Nakuru have never had their own newspaper, relying instead on word of mouth for local news. That changed last year when a news website, HiviSasa (meaning “Right Now”), started publishing 30 reports a day on fires, murders, school graduations, hospital improvements and much else that few people outside Nakuru would care about. On March 13th its headline read, “Teacher rescued from 45-feet toilet”.

Innovation in Africa is helped by a peculiar confluence of economic and political circumstances. Regulation is generally light thanks to weak governance; engineers can try things out that are either prohibited or prohibitively bureaucratic elsewhere. It is also buoyed by the paucity of traditional infrastructure, whether roads or landlines, meaning that new technologies or business models face few established competitors.

This business environment has attracted a growing number of Western companies to Africa. Microsoft is funding a small firm that is developing wide-area Wi-Fi systems able to cover entire regions at less than a hundredth of the cost of existing mobile telephony. It uses unallocated frequencies, including ones previously reserved for television that are being freed up as broadcasters move to digital transmissions that use less bandwidth. The intention is to bring the same model to rural communities in the West.

Technology is opening up African markets that have long been closed or did not previously exist, says Jim Forster, one of the early engineers at Cisco, a maker of network gear, and now an angel investor. Facebook has joined up with phone operators to make internet connectivity available free through an initiative known as, hoping to sign up Africans to its site before indigenous social media get to them. Launched in Africa last year, it has since been expanded to poor countries on other continents. Of all Western technology firms, IBM is perhaps the keenest on Africa. Virginia Rometty, the head, visits regularly and talks of “great, great innovation” coming out of the continent.

Africa’s innovation revolution is still in its infancy. But it is likely to gain pace, not least because new models and forms of financing start-ups are also being developed. Take EmergingCrowd, a London-based crowdfunding firm that was launched this week. It aims to match investors with companies in emerging markets, predominantly in Africa. One of the first firms to raise money on it is Bozza, a market for African music and film producers who would otherwise struggle sell their work. “The problems Africa faces are not necessarily American or European problems,” says Emma Kaye, its founder. “The solutions are likely to come out of Africa.”

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition

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