African Apps for African Problems

10 Min Read

November 12, 2012 By Edward Amartey-Tagoe

 A quick glance at topics discussed about  Africa will usually include hunger, pools of natural resources, long distance athletes and poor governance among others. Not too many people would associate Africa with wi-fi hot spots, undersea Internet cables, growing communities of tech hubs and tech startups decorated with International accolades. Who would have thought a continent which discovered mobile telephony not too long ago would hit a mobile penetration rate of 65%? Under the thick skin of Africa’s known problems lies a growing stream of young developers and innovators who are solving the problems that stare them in the face day and night, with technology.

The springing up of accelerators and the setting up of hubs and incubators is gradually leading to the birth of innovations on which its producers decide to make a living on or solve a decade old problem in their societies. With nations such as Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Ghana leading the pack, it won’t be long before other nations resort to the use of technology.

From web apps translating complex algorithms in the back-end, to simple mobile applications delivering relevant content,  and to simple SMS apps built to suit the different demographics represented in Africa, platforms have been worked on by African hands and are replicating or creating technologies with the primary aim of solving a problem, and through such means, sustaining a model and making a living.

Governance and accountability

Considering the fact that bandwidth, access to internet and Internet speed have been challenging to African nations, a good number of the innovations that have been developed leverage the power of mobile devices, with some interfacing with the web and others running largely on SMS. Weaving these options into our day to day lives to ensure better accountability is an art displayed by Kenya’s Ushahidi and Mzalendo platforms. The aforementioned are noted in the various nations of origin as developments which were born out of a problem faced by the citizens. Ushahidi was created in Kenya during the post election violence and crowdsourced information from citizens via SMS, twitter and email to display where the violence was occurring on a map so that interested persons could take necessary action. This flagship application has been used in many other different places including Haiti.

Clicking  on Mzalendo  takes you to Kenya’s web portals which primarily seeks to promote a stronger public voice and enhance public participation in politics by providing relevant information about the National Assembly’s activities, Members of Parliament and potential aspirants for public offices in Kenya. This website has become a meter for integrity for Kenyans and has increased transparency within the region.

Asides from these, there are a dozen other apps geared towards promoting more credible election processes, ensuring transparency and bettering governance.

Everyone is catered for, through text or voice
Most SMS only apps are built to handle the needs of people who have little or no access to internet on their phones. Content is delivered in text formats after the user has inputted a short code or a mobile number. Such content is usually relevant for the day-to-day activities of the end-user. The iCow app seeks to serve as a manual for cattle farmers in Africa. With iCow, farmers get the best dairy prices for their produces, receive alerts containing best practices as well as tips on how to handle their herd during gestation. Such basic setups with valuable content are sometimes backed by an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) for translation to the unlettered folks who are mostly in agricultural fields. Esoko’s SMS app is a similar tool for farmers backed by an IVR system for them to follow up on the content received. IVR’s are expensive to implement and are thus not the most common apps used.

Africa too can smile and connect
Africa’s middle class is obviously  in search of entertainment and utility. This is an opportunity discovered by the various developers I would term the “smartphone squad.” These members target the ever-increasing number of smartphone users. More and more smartphones (Blackberry, Android, iOS, Windows) are being shipped to Africa, making it easy for such developers to stay in this niche and keep serving the needs of the population.  Letigames produced Africa’s very first iPhone game called i-warrior even when the team wasn’t too sure how many Africans could even afford iPhones; A gamble you may call it! But today,with the benefit of hindsight of course, the company is happy it took that path, having branded itself as the ‘Gaming powerhouses’ in Africa spewing African themed games for global consumption and telling African stories through games. Now African kids are not only exposed to Spider Man or Super Mario, but also the African i-warrior or Obour. Other apps in the smartphone market include Nigera’s Spinlet, an app for music lovers who want to share their playlists with their social networks, Nkyea language translation app for users who want to learn Ghana’s local languages and Mxit a mobile social network that allows social networking on almost all kinds of phones including feature phones mostly used by Africans.

Enterprise solutions for better business operations
Years ago, a good number of businesses and agencies in Africa outsourced their tech needs abroad. I know some still do so, but I believe some businesses have been given a good reason to consider the use of the many enterprise focused solutions parading our coastlines, built with local hands. The focus of these B2B tech businesses are mainly to deliver solutions to their enterprise clients.

Proper health care delivery is at the heart of most government services. The introduction of technology in the health sector is a feat most developers think twice before attempting. This is due to the bureaucracies involved in such processes. For Claimsync, this was a challenge they were willing to take. The 4 co-founders have created a technology which seeks to automate the health care delivery process by reducing the documentation involved. With Claimsync’s suite, insurance companies and hospitals can process claims within minutes, a process which used to take hours. Knowing our health care delivery systems are not the best, it is my belief that such initiatives will go a long way to help us secure better health care services one day.

The need for better and reliable communication platforms between consumers and businesses cannot be over-emphasized, especially in a setting where e-mails, call centers and forums are not often used. Gripeline erupted out of Ghana’s cry for better customer service delivery. Through their mobile devices, customers are able to give feedback to enterprises via SMS and receive responses to such feedback from the businesses who access the aggregated messages in their account on a web application. The development team was awarded Best Business award in Silicon Valley in Feb 2011 for the creativity behind Nandimobile’s maiden service.

When the many complaints of unemployment reach Ayodeji Adewunmi’s doorstep, he puts together a team of techpreneurs to come up with a technology which will ultimately create an avenue for employers to list vacancies and have prospects go through such lists using their mobiles or the website. Today jobberman’s solution has spilled into the borders of its English speaking west-African neighbors, Ghana.

No Paypal? We will trade all the same.
My article on African solutions would have been useless without mentioning how the mass of thinkers are getting around its online payment problems. Paypal is absent in many African nations, and there are not many visa cards (debit or credit) in African pockets. mPesa was born out of the need to have a mobile and electronic form of payment. mPesa has proven useful in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and even other nations outside Africa, processing transactions worth US $ 4.98 Billion annually, translating to 17th of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product. Scores of similar online cards and electronic payment systems built by Africans are being created mainly to achieve two goals: to cater to the bankless African population and to create an avenue for e-commerce.

The problems facing the African continent are numerous. For the optimistic mind, this serves as a market for hungry brains to tap into and create an opportunity not only for oneself, but also for the continent as a whole.

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