Silicon Savanna: Mobile Phones Transform Africa

  • Photograph by Sven Torfinn for TIME

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

    The buzz at Pivot25, a conference for mobile-phone software developers and investors held this June, is all about the future of money. Ben Lyon, the 24-year-old business-development VP of Kopo Kopo, wants $250,000 to produce his app for shops to process payments made by text message. Paul Okwalinga, 28, describes his money app — called M-Shop, it allows you to buy travel tickets and takeout via mobile phone — as "not reinventing the wheel but pimping it." Kamal Budhabhatti, 35, claims Elma, the latest product from his company Craft Silicon, lets a phone do and be almost anything financial — act like a credit card or an online bank (a "digital wallet," he says), trade shares or forex, organize a company's payroll and (incidentally) surf the Web and phone home. Cash suddenly seems very old. The previous week, Joe Mucheru, a senior manager at Google, declared credit cards prehistoric. Adding to the giddy mood is the thought that the inventions on display might make some lucky Pivot25ers gazillionaires. And where are these extraordinary futures being imagined and plotted? The giraffes and zebras grazing in the game park outside rule out Silicon Valley, Seattle and Bangalore. Try Nairobi.

    Cell phones have taken all the world forward, but they are positively transforming Africa. Lack of infrastructure — few hospitals, landlines and roads; little power, education or running water; small banks; sparse insurance; tiny stock exchanges — is a large part of what economists mean when they say poverty . And much of Africa is a giant, dark infrastructural void, as anyone who has flown over the continent at night can attest.

    The arrival of the mobile phone changed that forever. For the first time, hundreds of millions of people found themselves on some sort of grid, one that allowed them to talk to one another and the world. The take-up was astonishing. From almost none a decade ago, there are now half a billion mobile phones in Africa, roughly one for every two Africans, according to industry analyst Informa Telecoms & Media. The economic effect has been just as dramatic. According to studies by the London Business School, the World Bank and consultants at Deloitte, for every 10 additional mobiles per 100 Africans, GDP rises 0.6% to 1.2%. "Mobile tech has the fastest adoption rate of any technology in the world," said Miguel Granier, founder of Boston-based technology and development fund Invested Development, who was attending Pivot25. "For rapid, catalytic growth, it's the biggest opportunity there is."

    But this is not a story merely of how technology is changing Africa. Africans are changing technology right back. They now use text-message networks to send e mail, run social networks (South Africa's MXit) and even verify from a bar code whether a drug is genuine or fake (mPedigree in Ghana and Sproxil in Nigeria). Africa's influence on global technology is most marked in mobile banking: with its M Pesa service ( M for mobile, pesa meaning money in Swahili), Kenyan operator Safaricom became the first-ever telecom company to create a mass mobile-banking service, setting industry standards now being copied from California to Kabul.

    Africans, and Kenyans in particular, are making their presence felt online too. When Kenya erupted in violence in the aftermath of a disputed general election in late 2007, a handful of Nairobi code writers created Ushahidi (meaning testimony in Swahili), a data-mapping platform to collate and locate reports of unrest sent in by the public via text message, e mail and social media. The idea was simply to find out what was happening. Says Ushahidi co-founder Juliana Rotich: "The TV was playing The Sound of Music while we could see houses burning in our neighborhood." But the desire to know what's going on turned out to be universal, and Ushahidi quickly became the world's default platform for mapping crises, disasters and political upheaval. According to Rotich, by May of this year, Ushahidi, which is free to download, had been used 14,000 times in 128 countries to map everything from last year's earthquake in Haiti to this year's Japanese tsunami and the Arab Spring.

    Ushahidi's creation was all the more remarkable for coming at a time when bandwidth in Kenya was some of the thinnest in the world. In 2007 just one fiber cable only partly connected sub-Saharan Africa to the world, and most of the continent logged on via satellite, which is expensive and slow. In the past two years, however, six more cables have arrived, linking the region to the U.S., Europe and Asia, and by 2013 that number will be 12. Tim Parsonson, CEO of African data-center operator Teraco, says that in the past four years Africa's Internet capacity soared from 340 gigabits to 34,000 gigabits per second while the cost of the Internet to its service providers plunged from $4,000 to $200 per month for a megabit per second and could fall still further, to $100, within a year.

    As a result, Internet traffic in Africa is among the fastest growing in the world. "This is a tidal wave of activity crossing the continent," says Ben White, a blogger and the founder of VC4Africa, which connects African tech entrepreneurs with mentors and financiers. Google says online advertising in 2010 saw 5.2 billion clicks on African sites vs. 3.7 billion in Western Europe. "The pace is amazing. It's lightning speed," says Mucheru, who heads Google's sub-Saharan Africa office. The Web's economic effect echoes that of mobiles: a 2009 World Bank study found every 10% rise in high-speed connections raises growth by 1.3%.

    Just as African bloggers have joined the global conversation, Africa's tech developers are joining the global marketplace. The next killer piece of code is as likely to be written in Africa as anywhere else. Amazon's revolutionary cloud-computing platform, which allows users to rent varying amounts of virtual computer capacity on which to build applications, was developed in Cape Town. Parsonson, 42, whose Teraco built three data centers in two years in South Africa and is erecting two more in Nigeria and Kenya, says he is witnessing an online explosion faster and bigger than at any other time in the Web's short history. "There is," he says, "a lot going on."

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