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Bridging Africa’s Digital Divide

The digital impact is already being felt in the fields of education, health, access to water, and energy

In just the past decade, it is hard to underestimate the explosive impact in Africa of the mobile phone. The tiny device has already transformed finance (with e-payments), unlocked business networks (through chat groups), and opened marketing opportunities (fishermen can decide when and where to sell their catch). Now old Nokias are graduating into smart phones. In 2030, Africa will become the most digitalized continent with the highest youth population.

Bruno Mettling, President of the phone company Orange Middle East & Africa, sees some of the opportunities. His book, Booming Africa, envisions an emerging continent transformed and empowered by what he calls the “digital dividend.” Booming populations armed with private devices can leapfrog the lack of large, centralized, public physical infrastructure projects. Instead, they can tap energy from micro-grids coupled with mobile technology, or remotely trigger solar pumps to start drip irrigation.

Booming populations armed with private devices can leapfrog the lack of large, centralized, public physical infrastructure projects.

My book, African Girl, African Women, highlights the importance of the digital systems in Africa. Today, hundreds of (predominantly male) entrepreneurs are at the origin of many innovations that promise to emancipate African villages, cities, and society. There are co-working spaces and tech hub incubators mushrooming from Nigeria’s social tech innovation center. In Kenya, an example is the cell phone money transfer platform MPesa.

African man and woman at computer

Senegal, Mali, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tunisia have set up networks like Code4Africa to train a cadre of young computer scientists across the continent. One leader in this effort, Amadou Daffe, has encouraged African women to achieve parity in access to coding, and notes that they show more perseverance in learning and clarity in execution. The numbers are promising; in Ethiopia 37% of computer programmers are now female. While such networks would need to quadruple to fully digitalize Africa, women are finding opportunities in various pockets.

Established by Mark Zuckerberg, Nairobi’s $24 million tech hub, Andela, chose two girls, Mbithe Nzomo and Margaret Ochieng, out of fifty thousand Kenyan candidates interested in making a future in technology. In Accra, Ghana, the Meltwater School of Technology expanded its scope, growing from a coding school into a startup incubator. Likewise, in Dakar, Senegal, the CTIC receives several young candidate entrepreneurs, including women, in their quest for innovation and creativity. Togolese former hacker, Sename Koffi Agbodjinou, founded WoeLab in Lomé to train and accelerate the ambitions of young tech entrepreneurs. Two young women there have developed a smart irrigation system, TERRES, that enables agriculture to be remotely controlled from a mobile device.

Few countries in Africa have fueled tech entrepreneurship more aggressively than Rwanda. Kigali has connected more than 92% of its dense, inland population to internet with 4G access. To eradicate poverty and grow the economy, Rwanda’s government has invested $100 million into digitalization, including in remote provinces, to leverage innovation in all its sectors, starting with health, transportation, and education. In medicine, each citizen can gain access to health information through a private portal. In schools, the “One Laptop Per Child” initiative aims to distribute 500,000 computers to equip all Rwanda students. These examples have been replicated elsewhere in Africa, including in neighboring Uganda, as well as Ghana and Benin.

Few countries in Africa have fueled tech entrepreneurship more aggressively than Rwanda.

Africans refuse to be left behind by the digital revolution. By setting up tech hubs, integrating the economy, and equipping girls with IT training and networks, public and private leaders help slow, stop, and reverse the continent’s brain drain. More importantly, their investments increase human capital for the 21st Century, ensuring that each country can adapt technology to its specific needs and contours.

Africa’s “frugal innovation”

Hand sculptureThe digital world was not born in Africa. But Africa is reinventing it to fit the needs of its young and booming population. Each country and city harnesses and adapts technology in unique ways. A common pattern throughout the continent, however, is that African transformation comes through “frugal innovation.”

Frugal innovation is born of necessity. People with few resources but important needs don’t require apps to track dates, stock markets, restaurants, or airline travel. Rather, they leverage their phones and creativity to secure simple basics: fresh water, affordable food, reliable energy, public health, and universal numeracy or literacy. Frugal innovation is exemplified by a startup that creates a cheap sensor through which family farmers can monitor soil moisture and fertility.

Other frugal innovations create shortcuts. A phone app, Bebound, unlocks internet searches for 3 billion people who lack Wi-Fi access, by simply using a phone’s short message service (SMS) texting capacity. Another tool, Nickel, enables any African to set up an international bank account and credit card for just 20 Euros a year, allowing them to make transactions without a fuss.

Africa’s Digital Leapfrogs

Africa has made several digital leapfrogs to become ready to embrace technology, master new trends, and join the global leaders in technology and the digital sphere. These advances have brought vast benefits to African communities — enabling e- commerce for the selling of goods and services, e-governance, and the booming of “smart cities”.

These advances have brought vast benefits to African communities — enabling e- commerce for the selling of goods and services, e-governance, and the booming of “smart cities”.

Finally, the rise of digital and economic platforms is shaping a new way of doing business and paving the way for Africa’s startups. These applications include those that link various products, devices, and services through data. Companies young and old, large and small are investing in themselves through digital solutions – such as remote sensing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), and cognitive systems — that simplify service delivery, billing systems, and enterprise management. Africa is welcoming an amazing digital transition full of opportunities, jobs creation, and sustainable impact!

Ref. Navi Radjou; Frugal Innovation: How To Do More With Less

Dr. Hynd Bouhia has cumulated more than 20 years of professional experience in high-level leadership positions. She was nominated by Forbes among the 100 most influential women and most influential Arab women in Business (2015), and honored as a member of the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars (2018). With a ... Read more

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