#12 power
Anirudh Narla

Set to Change the World

Up until now, Africa has lagged behind in access to technology, especially the Internet. Can Africans turn this deficit into an opportunity?

Africa has been the subject of mostly negative stereotypes throughout history. And while the recent spurt of globalization has revealed Africa’s growing modernity, there is no doubt that access to technology in most of Africa is extremely low compared to Europe and North America. For example, Internet penetration [1] is above 75% in North America and the EU while in Africa it is only 15%. The major hurdle for innovation and development is infrastructure. Although undersea cables have reached the shores of Africa [2] they have failed to make it into the interior parts due to lack of infrastructure.

Considering the size of Africa and the sparse distribution of its population, access to technology, especially the Internet, will remain the continent’s greatest challenge in the near future. Sometimes, though, challenges turn into opportunities.

The world to the rescue

While African governments and telecommunications companies are failing to provide people with internet access, some of the global top tech companies have already tried to tackle this challenge. Hopefully initiatives such as Google Balloon [3] and Internet.org [4] (a consortium of Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung that aims to bring internet to the rest of the world) will offer sustainable and viable solutions soon.

Google balloon is basically a huge balloon, connected to Internet floating, around the atmosphere. People connect to the balloon network using a special low cost Internet antenna attached to their building. This eradicates the problem of cables reaching households and proposes a cheaper and easier solution. And though it still has few issues, or proposes a sustainable and effective solution to the problem of infrastructure in Africa.

These international companies have also set up many services to get Africa online. For instance, most of Africa doesn’t have street names and locations are identified by landmarks; in Ghana, I have been directed by landmarks as ephemeral as “a blue building” and even “a pile of tires”. Google’s getafricaonline campaign [5] offers free and subsidized services to get small businesses online and improve the overall lack of data.

Overtaking Europe?

At the same time, on a technical level Africa might be catching up soon – or even overtaking – Europe and North America. Newer technologies such as cell phones and emails are being introduced as Africa bypasses previous technologies such as landlines and pagers. Experts believe that Africa will leapfrog the PC by introducing the more cost-effective tablets.

Africa can make great economic and social progress by not wasting resources on out-dated technology.

Such leapfrogging will definitely speed up technological revolutions. This means Africa can make great economic and social progress by not wasting resources on outdated technology and eliminating systemic unemployment (unemployment due to changes in technology).

Yet, even today, technologies developed in Africa are setting an example for Europe and North America.

Setting an example

Harsh and difficult conditions force out-of-the-box thinking. Designing products for budget conscious and infrastructure limited customers leads to breakthrough innovations. These technological revolutions in developing countries have forced Western markets to rethink how they do business. That’s what we call “reverse innovation”.

Harsh and difficult conditions force out-of-the-box thinking.

Nokia, for instance, incorporated new features into its devices meant for U.S. customers after observing mobile handset sharing in Ghana. And there are initiatives, such as Safaricom’s M-PESA system [6], an SMS‐based money transfer system, that are tackling the problem of a non-existent financial infrastructure in most parts of Africa. Now almost 60% of all transactions in Kenya and Tanzania take place via SMS. Many Western payment providers are closely following this development and aim to replicate it back home.

Of course, reverse innovation isn’t just taking place in Africa; it is also apparent in other developing and emerging markets as well. Some famous examples include GE Health Care’s innovation of building portable, low-cost ECG (electrocardiography) devices to serve the rural population of India. China launched an improved version a year later targeting the Western market. In another example, Procter & Gamble developed a lower-price diaper line without all the bells and whistles for the Brazilian market. This product is now being marketed across Western Europe under different brand names, such as Simply Dry.

Revolutionizing Africa

The greatest impact of technology on Africa, however, is undoubtedly the provision of a greater infrastructure that is empowering Africans to access opportunities that, until now, weren’t even imaginable for most people. I currently work at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology Incubator [7] and am introduced on a daily basis to ideas that promise to revolutionize technology in Africa.

I am introduced on a daily basis to ideas that promise to revolutionize technology in Africa.

One of our portfolio companies, mPawa [8], a Ghanaian start-up targeted at blue-collar workers, hopes to minimize unemployment, mostly frictional unemployment, by allowing job seekers to create a profile via SMS. Mobile internet connection isn’t necessary for this service. This will benefit the 220 million new Africans the International Labour Organisation estimates will enter the workforce in the next seven years.

Recent estimates indicate that close to a billion medical claims are processed annually in sub-Saharan Africa, almost all of them on paper. Lack of an efficient medical infrastructure has meant millions of dollars in unsettled claims. ClaimSync [9], another MEST start-up, provides records management and claims processing software intended to remedy this.

Trokxi [10], still in the ideation and school project phase, aims to simplify the transport system in West Africa by providing point-to-point transport solutions and prices.

Set to change the world

All in all, recent technological innovations are set to change Africa. Many of them are even being implemented in developed countries. So my statement should more accurately read: recent African technological innovations are set to change the world. But their greatest impact will always be local empowerment in Africa by redefining the socioeconomic landscape.

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