Silicon Savanna: Mobile Phones Transform Africa

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Photograph by Sven Torfinn for TIME

World power Technology that works on the cell phone of an African farmer can go global

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Silicon Savanna
On the second day of Pivot25, Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary of the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communications, dropped a bombshell. In conversation with a panel of Kenya's tech luminaries, he said construction on the new $7 billion Konza Technology City outside Nairobi should start toward the end of the year. "We are building the infrastructure," said Ndemo. "Now it's time for content and applications." To that end, he added, "we, the government, are going to shock you."

In the first week of July, Kenya's government will become the first in Africa — and one of the first in the world — to be completely data open. It will release online millions of pages of previously internal, often secret government documents. "All the data you want, you'll find it there," said Ndemo. He described the initiative in terms of allowing a government that faces a general election next year to demonstrate service delivery as well as to have a legacy project for President Mwai Kibaki, who is not expected to seek re-election. But the implications of such radical transparency for a government frequently ranked among the most corrupt in the world are immense. In an interview, Ndemo agreed that open government will "completely change the way the government deals with the public and will strike a huge blow against corruption. There has been some resistance — the Planning Ministry refused for a whole year to give us their data — but we have convinced them."

As the most developed country on the continent, South Africa is the obvious hub for online Africa. And yet when Google was looking for a regional base, it went first to Nairobi. Why? Because Kenya — notably its government and specifically Ndemo — embraced the Internet as few other nations have. Unlike other African regulators, who often see protecting state telecom monopolies as their duty, Ndemo was an early and enthusiastic liberalizer of telecoms and fiber networks and was instrumental in Kenya's decision to lay its own national undersea fiber cable when talks on a regional link failed. Ndemo says the state's ultimate aim is free mobile calls and e mail for every Kenyan who wants them, which he estimates at 60% to 80% of a population of 40 million. The driving principle behind his digital zeal, says Ndemo, is that "the Internet is a basic human right" and a necessity for economic growth.

Kenya's love for IT has earned it the nickname Silicon Savanna. The moniker neatly encapsulates the themes of its rising influence on global technology: mobile and rural and filling some wide-open spaces in infrastructure and democracy. Pivot25, for example, is exclusively focused on mobile-phone apps because it's becoming clear that mobiles are how the developing world connects to the Web. Half of all Africans — and 92% of Kenyans — go online through a mobile phone. (Not many expect to graduate to a desktop. No African manufacturer makes standard computers, but already two — one in Nigeria, one in the Republic of the Congo — are building tablets.)

The rural theme is also evident at Pivot25. The Mobile Crop Disease Surveillance app, for example, is a real-time alarm system run on text messaging. Another app, M-Farm, allows farmers to use texting to price their produce correctly, pool buying and selling power and keep in contact with suppliers and buyers. Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman, who also set up the iHub and m:Lab tech centers in Nairobi and organized Pivot25, argues that producing apps for an African farmer's cell phone, often an old, basic model, may not only be necessary to address the Kenyan market but also be a recipe for worldwide adoption. "Any of these apps can go global," he says. "They work on any phone anywhere. In a sense, Africa is the best testing ground for new stuff. If it works here for the guy on his Nokia 1100 [a basic GSM mobile and the world's most popular phone, with more than 250 million sold since 2003], it'll work for anyone."

Even if an African Angry Birds (run on SMS) is in everyone's future, the influence of Africa's technologists may be most keenly felt close to home. As debilitating as Africa's lack of infrastructure is its democracy deficit, and the two are often related. Historically, the continent's dictators showed scant concern for giving their people the basic tools they needed to get on in life, not least because political ambitions evaporate as simple living becomes harder. So perhaps it's natural that, like Ushahidi and Kenya's open-data initiative, much of Africa's tech innovation has an activist edge. Twaweza and Uwezo in Tanzania and Kenya are merely the most prominent of scores of new African Web-based campaigns for state transparency and accountability. Ory Okolloh, 34, another of Ushahidi's co-founders and a Google policy manager, says, "The Internet doesn't care who you are. People are accessing the Internet for free without having to be from the right family or tribe or paying a bribe. There is a liberating aspect to that that gives it an edge." VC4 Africa's Ben White says, "The more people connect, the more they know people who also think infrastructure and government support are missing. That's when people start demanding services and — when they do not get them — you get situations like Egypt."

That prospect is already prompting some repressive governments to pull the plug. In April, during opposition protests against President Yoweri Museveni, Uganda ordered Internet service providers to block access to Facebook and Twitter, where much of the dissent was organized. That month Swaziland also reportedly suspended access to Facebook in the face of protests. In June, Rwanda blocked the Umuvugizi website as a court found its editor guilty of insulting President Paul Kagame. And journalist groups say Sudan and Tanzania, which has a version of WikiLeaks in JamiiForums, use Chinese-style malware to damage user systems and delete content. More-enlightened leaders make the new channels work for them. The eventual winner of Nigeria's presidential election in April, Goodluck Jonathan, announced his candidacy on Facebook.

It is surprises like that — a politician entering a presidential race via social media — that reveal the true significance of Africa's rapid entrance into the technology business. It defies stereotypes, overturns perceptions. Says Ushahidi's Rotich: "When I speak in Europe or the U.S., people are shocked. I'm a woman, I'm not begging for money, and I'm not showing them pictures of abject poverty. Ushahidi is jarring for people. It complicates their view of Africa. Ushahidi is cool. I think that's good. I think maybe through tech, people are just beginning to work out just how cool Africans really are."

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