Kui Kinyanjui - (Africa) - Africa's New Hope Lies in Technology

Whereas other continent have had industrial revolutions of their own making, Kui Kinyanjui, a journalist for business daily, argues that the internet could provide the 'dark continent' with its own kick-start through start-ups and connectivity.

There's an old saying:"This is Africa".

It's a wry turn of phrase most often used in a disparaging manner by some who aim to capture all that is wrong with Africa - from its rough roads to the cliché wide open spaces to, yes, those ever-present starving children in magazine ads who need just $1 so they can buy enough food for a week.

It's a difficult concept to match the soft revolution that is currently underway in many African homes, businesses and governments, where a more connected society is bringing about deep and meaningful change using internet technology. Increasingly, stories of how the internet is shaping the continent's economic, social and political landscape are coming to the fore.

In Egypt, it all started with a tweet.

Wearied by a government that failed to take their changing needs into consideration, the internet played a pivotal role in helping the citizens of the North African state to successfully agitate for change. Within weeks, the ‘Arab Spring' was endemic, spreading across the Middle East and North Africa where citizens had tired of oppressive regimes.

Down south, tired of losing an estimated $70 million to avoidable banana crop diseases, a group of Ugandan farmers now use internet-connected mobile phones to communicate with scientists based at CDC in the United States. Using GPS facilities on their data-enabled devices, they also receive real-time updates of where to source markets for their crops.

In neighbouring Kenya, where over $11 million is transferred using mobile phones, a new initiative hopes to monitor graft cases in government.

Huduma is an application that is being developed by the founders of Ushahidi, a crowd-sourcing website that has helped direct aid in the aftermath of disasters such as the Haiti and Japan earthquakes. It will allow citizens to use online maps to monitor how effectively their legislators commit national resources to their constituencies.

If successful, the project will allow voters to make more informed decisions about who is performing in parliament and how much allocated cash is making its way to the grassroots.

Is this Africa?

Throughout history, historians have pinpointed the catalyst behind many of the world's great economies to pivotal trends. In Europe, Asia and the Americas, the industrial, silk, and agricultural revolutions were instrumental in shaping their future growth.

For Africa, many hope the internet age will have the same trigger effect.
Africa is the world's second-largest continent after Asia in size and population.
One in every five world citizens is African, yet an African is ten times more likely than anyone else in the world to have access to the internet.

Over the last ten years however, growth in use of the internet on the continent grew by over 2,000 %, compared to the global average of just over 400 % growth.
A decade ago many Africans needed a permit to go online, and could only access the internet through a single government owned link.

With increased investments by the private sector in satellite connectivity, and the arrival of over ten submarine cables during the period, more will be able to connect.
Prices have tumbled by as much as $10,000 over the period, transforming the internet from a preserve of the elite to a tool for the people.

By 2025, there are expected to be two or three times as many Internet users around the world as there are today, and people from emerging countries in Africa will make up about half of that user base.

These developments have changed the way Africa thinks about itself. Long thought of as the ‘dark continent', these data links now open Africa up to the world, allowing the continent its first, real unfettered access to commercial and developmental opportunities. More interestingly, several indicators reveal that it's not just a one-way conversation, where the West provides ready-made solutions for Africa. Instead, in small outposts around the continent, Africans are finding their own answers.

In South Africa, home-grown African tech start-ups like MXitseek, look to emulate the successes of global giants such as Yahoo or Skype by providing millions of teens with a cheap means of chatting to each other online. Other South African firms like Dealfish, an online classifieds website, are expanding their footprint across Africa in a quest to lock-in customers ahead of the much anticipated entry of global firms.

In East Africa, internet-based activities have already topped the $1 billion mark, revealing both the potential that the internet has in being an enabler of business and social enterprise, and its commercial opportunity. The region also has one of the world's highest page views rates in the world, with East Africans viewing over 600 internet pages on their phones a month, over 200 pages more than their counterparts in South Africa, Ghana, or even France. Increasingly, it is becoming apparent that this - the government-toppling, e-commerce-driven, application developing reality is Africa, and it's all thanks to the internet.

Kui Kinyanjui is one of Africa's most experienced ICT analysts, and currently works with Business Daily, a leading East African business paper. When she's not dissecting annual results, she likes to put on her evangelical hat to preach to anyone who will listen about growth opportunities in Africa's exciting technology space.