mobile innovation in Africa: practical solutions to real problems

We take a look at mobile innovations that give farmers access to markets and bring education to all.

Africa is often described as the ‘mobile continent’. Growth in the number of subscribers to mobile services there is currently twice the global average at around 40% year-on-year, which means that they are used by just under 70% of the total population.

Given that Africa is home to a vast 1.1 billion people, the upshot is that it has now become the second most connected region behind Asia/Pacific.

But unlike the geographical north, where the focus tends to be on entertainment and leisure applications, Africans are more interested in practical tools to help them solve problems and access important data to improve their work and personal lives.

necessity is the mother of invention

The old adage ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ applies here. Because it can be tricky to gain access to information, products and services especially in impoverished, rural areas, people are constantly coming up with workarounds – and mobile technology is the latest vehicle for achieving this.

In fact, such are the levels of inventiveness coming out of the continent that as smartphone handset prices fall and adoption becomes more prevalent over the next 18 months or so, Africa is widely expected to leapfrog the north in terms of innovation.

Here we look at two pioneering uses of mobile technology today:

Esoko: agricultural information in Ghana and Uganda

Mobile access to vital commercial information and best practice advice has transformed the lives of 350,000 farmers in Ghana and Uganda.

There are more than 10 million farming households across Africa, the majority of which operate at subsistence levels and are unable to turn their activities into viable businesses.

But Esoko, which means ‘electronic market’ in Swahili, is helping to change all of that. The not-for-profit organization acts as a broker by providing 20 NGOs, government agencies and the like with a vehicle to communicate key agricultural information to farmers.

access to market prices

Its first, and most popular, service gives farmers access to commodity market prices for different crops to assist in making informed decisions when selling to traders.

Also well-liked are the weekly local weather forecasts, but other options include receiving agricultural hints and tips such as when best to plant crops as well as an eBay-style marketplace.

Because most farmers are illiterate, however, after being signed up to individual services by a relevant NGO, they receive SMSs in English once or twice a week on their cell phones. These messages alert them to the fact that they need to call a helpline staffed by workers who provide relevant information to them in their native language.

A recent study by New York University indicated that using the system between 2012 and 2014 boosted farmers’ profits by about 12%, while at the same time helping to harmonize prices across their local areas.

David Aduama, Esoko’s communications manager, says: “It’s about supporting economic development in Africa and using mobile technology to fix a problem. The continent has the potential to feed itself and the world, but it’s currently underperforming and is not even at 70% of full capacity.”

Key challenges here include climate change, which means that information is becoming more important than ever to help people rethink traditional farming approaches.

BrainShare: equal access to education

In a bid to level the playing field between middle class, urban learners and deprived children in rural areas, BrainShare has developed a system to give everyone equal access to high quality educational resources no matter what their circumstances.

The e- and m-learning platform, which was launched three years ago and won an Orange Community Innovation Award in 2012, includes both licensed content and material provided by classroom teachers, who are paid for their trouble.

overcoming Internet access issues

But a key issue in both Uganda and Rwanda where the service currently operates, is that, while many learners have at least spasmodic access to the internet to enable them to interact with the BrainShare website, some 30% have none at all.

As a result, they are given the alternative of dialing into the system by typing a specific code into their GSM cell phones. All handsets, no matter how basic, support USSD, a protocol that enables them to communicate with the service provider’s computers.

This enables learners to access a menu and select content such as study notes that they would like sent to them via SMS, and which can be subsequently scrolled through and read.

As Charles Muhindo, BrainShare’s founder and chief executive, says: “It’s a bit painful, but internet access isn’t always available or can be too expensive so it’s often the best option.”

This is not least because users are charged only 50 Ugandan Shillings for each SMS compared to the standard 220 Shillings, with the fee divided between BrainShare and the mobile operator concerned.

“It’s about solving a real-life problem, which is that of getting content to children in a simple way.” Muhindo explains. “This model is targeted at the poorest children and means that the smallest coin they can get hold of will in a humble, easy-to-use way help to transform their learning.”

Find out more about Orange Business’ activities in Africa. Read about mobile money in Africa and how Orange Money is helping drive innovation in mbanking.