Do most people in Africa have access to a mobile phone? Is there 3G or 4G in Africa? Do you get signal in rural areas? These are some of the most common questions I have found myself faced with in the last few months.
Quite understandable I suppose, is the typical outdated perspective of sub Saharan Africa; mention Ethiopia and most people will still picture images of nationwide famine from appeals such as LiveAid and others of nearly 20 years ago. Sadly, Africa still has its fair share of problems, but often overlooked (until recently) is how the ‘digital revolution’ and in particular how mobile technologies of the 21st century have helped transform the continent - the technology may have been later to arrive, but as mobile technologies have become more widespread and affordable, people have taken to them with the same enthusiasm seen across the globe and without the constraints of fixed line infrastructure, these technologies have been given a place to thrive
Unsurprisingly there has been an explosion in the use of social media, with uses ranging from sharing of memes, keeping in touch, or even coordinating political activism. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first went to Africa but just like in the UK people are drawn to anything which helps them communicate.
African app stores contain a similar mix of games, tools etc but there are also some interesting differences. One of these, a sim based application, called M-Pesa, is an example of how the differences in culture, society and challenges faced shapes the unique innovative ideas that spawn from a populace.
M-Pesa (M for mobile, pesa Swahili for money) is a mobile-phone based money transfer service, allowing users to deposit, withdraw, and transfer money using a mobile device without the need for a bank account. M-Pesa was launched in 2007 and by 2011 had over 17 million subscribers in Kenya alone, combined moving over £600 million per month. In comparison, only this year have UK banks started to provide the ability for users to link their bank account to their phone number to facilitate a simplified money transfer service requiring nothing more than the recipient’s mobile phone number through a service called Paym
As of March 2012, 3 out of 4 Kenyans had a mobile phone and it is estimated that 67% of all handsets sold in Kenya are smartphones with the Windows Phone platform growing at the fastest rate last quarter. With a population of over 45 million people that’s… a lot of phones. With a large existing user base seeing rapid growth, telecoms companies have been reacting to the high demand. Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecoms company by market value, increase its capital expenditure to £319 million in the 12 months ending March 2014 and the company is bidding for a share of the LTE (4G) spectrum which it aims to begin rolling out across the country.
I guess what this all comes back to is there is a really solid infrastructure in the majority of places across East Africa to allow us to drive VetAfrica and associated Cloud back end services at scale, in an attempt to reach over 100 million farmers across the region. Next time I’m in Kenya or Uganda I’ll compare internet access speeds on my phone with the ones I’m currently experiencing in the Highlands of Scotland, and hopefully I’ll be pleasantly surprised.