Frontline: Innovative Africa
The revolution may not be televised, but it will certainly be on a smartphone near you. some 70% of Africa’s cellphones are predicted to be internet-connected by 2020. Innovation stretch from the depths of the earth, harnessing geothermal power, to 50,000ft, where unpiloted aircraft can circle the skies broadcasting internet signals to inaccessible regions.
Approvals can go through quickly because governments are often reluctant to impose regulatory hurdles on new technology. Because landlines were few in Africa, there were not many established competitors trying to block cellphones. Governments saw cellphone licences as a marvellous new revenue stream.
Africa’s cellphone revolution has been a catalyst for innovation. Engineers enthuse about ‘cellphone’ or’off-grid’ solutions for power and water shortages as well as ways to boost delivery of education and health services. And it can really be called Africa’s cellphone revolution because many of the ideas and technologies developed on the continent have now radiated around the globe.
FRONTLINE – INNOVATIVE AFRICA
•Green revolution: Harnessing earth, wind and fire
•Big leaps from the platform: mobile money and Ushahidi
•The fightback against HIV/AIDS
•Partnerships give chances to more students
•Culture: Soaraway success on a shoestring
•Employment: Take these broken wings and learn to fly
Systems to make payments via cellphones were speedily authorised by Kenya’s central bank once the technology was developed. Alongside the ingenuity of the coders, it was the market demand of millions of people without bank accounts that encouraged the innovation. Rwanda and Nigeria adopted the technology long before Western economies could agree on protocols for systems such as Apple Pay.
Now, across Africa, mobile-money accounts are being used to collect life insurance premiums and pension contributions. Out on farms, many coffee and cocoa growers can pay for fertiliser and seeds by cellphone and get meteorological predictions and planting advice. In some villages where schools were poor or non-existent, children can now follow courses via solar-powered screens.
As the roller coaster of commodity prices dips, and debts and deficits grow, some of this talk about innovation and success can seem a little surreal. Yet activists, businesspeople and officials in Africa insist the need for innovation has never been stronger. Their views are formed by the search for solutions to harsh realities on Africa’s turf: power and water shortages, upgrading education and health services and fighting the ravages of climate change.
Many of the successes described in the following pages are targeted at tackling such crises. African engineers and entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative ideas using a mix of solar power, cellphones and information technology. These offer both a shortterm fix and the prospect of leapfrogging established science in rich countries.
African scientists often have to navigate two distinct worlds. As global business leaders enthuse about the implications of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ and its aim to spur ever-closer collusion between the industrial, digital and biological worlds, several African economies are dealing with the implications of the first three revolutions: steam, electricity and information technology.
In their closely researched analysis of technological pioneers in the book Innovation Africa, Olugbenga Adesida and Geci Karuri-Sebina neatly describe the tensions pulling at African scientists and engineers: “Africa today is home to inventors and entrepreneurs, high-end and low-end technological innovation, tinkerers and dreamers. Barely adequate social services, poor infrastructure, low agricultural productivity, preventable diseases and limited sanitation also characterise the continent […] but these are precisely the everyday challenges that these inventors, tinkerers and dreamers are seeking to resolve.”
The next step, Adesida and Karuri-Sebina argue, will have to come from governments and businesses to improve funding and facilities for the inventors and pioneers. But now with state cutbacks across the board, that could prove as elusive as some of the promised technological breakthroughs. ●