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Technology fined tuned to Africa’s needs

By Gemma Ware
Posted on Monday, 9 November 2009 09:36

New communications applications are being pioneered across the

continent with a view to eventual profit and based on meeting vital

social needs

How do you go about buying a second hand car in Kampala? Or if you already have a truck, find a farmer who needs his or her matoka transported to market next week so you have a full-load on your way to town? Such mechanics of small-scale enterprise are now being serviced through a new partnership launched in June between Google, MTN and the Grameen Foundation offering a mobile-based ‘Google Trader’ application to all MTN customers in Uganda. Alongside a suite of four other applications, including a text service giving tips on sexual health or farming, subscribers will be able to use their phones to search and buy anything from a sack of bananas to a new house.

All three partners are gaining something. Grameen, which has pioneered a network of 20,000 village phone operators in Africa, has found a new source of revenue for them to charge their customers to ask questions or post an advert by SMS. Google is using Uganda as a testing ground for its mission to organise the world’s information to make it universally acceptable and useful. For MTN it is a matter of building the brand. “The industry where we are playing is very, very competitive,” says Richard Mwami, public access manager at MTN Uganda. “For us to grow differently, for us to position ourselves competitively in the market where we’re playing, we’ve got to be innovative.”

Africa is seeing more and more innovations like this. Challenging Google in the mobile-applications game, in August Microsoft announced its South African partner Blue Label Telecoms would be the first to try out a new ‘One-App’ facility aimed at emerging markets that will allow any basic mobile phone handset to access web-based social networking services such as Facebook, Twitter and Windows Live Messenger.

MXit, another South African company, has had run away-success with its mobile instant messanger, attracting 15.3m subscribers world wide since its launch in 2003, 13.8m of them in South Africa. It sold a 30% share to media house Naspers in 2007 for an undisclosed sum.

Innovations launched in Asia are also arriving in Africa. Augere, a UK-based company founded by Orange UK Chairman Sanjiv Ahuja, has also chosen Uganda as the first African stop for its radio-based WiMAX broadband network. After launching in August in Pakistan and Bangladesh under the brand name QUBEE, Augere has ambitious plans to target the small business and consumer market across Africa. “Some people are paying $200-300 a month to have broadband,” Paul Franklin, Augere’s director for African relations told The Africa Report. “Our view is that to get widespread adoption in markets one should be in the $10s and looking to get at below $10 over time.”

Indian firm VNL is also aggressively seeking African partners for its solar-powered mobile phone base stations. Part of a sector it calls ‘microtelecom’, the technology took five years to develop and was designed specifically for rural communities. Each pack comes in six boxes with ‘DIY’ picture instructions that should take two villagers six hours to assemble. VNL has already equipped 100 villages in India with base stations and is in advanced talks with suppliers and mobile operators with plans to launch first in North and West Africa.

Other improvements to existing technologies will bring new functionalities. “Africa is really looking forward for the WiMAX chips inbedded inside laptops,” Daniel Levy, general manager for Africa and the Middle East at Israeli-based WiMAX suppliers Alvarion, told The Africa Report. Still, Levy says that until ‘democratic prices’ for the new computers are introduced, mobile ‘dongles’ that can be plugged into an existing laptop will remain a cheaper solution. WiMAX technology is also being used in the mining and petroleum sectors to build localised communication networks and to provide security sensors.

The sector receiving most attention from innovation departments is education. Over 55,000 shrunk-down computers known as ‘thin-clients’ made by US company Wyse have now been installed across South Africa’s Gauteng Province to kick-start Gauteng Online, an ambitious government-funded project to build computer labs with internet and email at all public schools by 2013.

Following pilot projects in Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Senegal and Tanzania, US tech company NComputing won a contract in May with the UN’s Global Alliance for ICT Development to provide 500,000 virtual desktops workstations in schools in developing countries by 2012.

Other computers that are less reliant on well-serviced local electricity infrastructure are in the pipeline. In Lesotho, South African developers Astralab have worked with Microsoft to pilot the Compujector, a mix-between a computer and a projector that runs off either solar or diesel power and allows teacher to hook-up 30 mice to one PC.

The profits may not be immediate, but the market for innovative solutions to Africa’s particular technology challenges is huge. And IT companies will be keen to nurture a tech-savvy generation of young Africans who are likely to grow up to be a valuable consumer pool.

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