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SXSW: How Mobile Devices Are Changing Africa 65

Nerval's Lobster writes "Mobile phones are kicking off a revolution in Africa, with everyone from farmers to villagers relying on apps to make electronic payments, check on expiration dates for medicine, and predict future storms or the best prices for produce. In a SXSW session titled 'The $100bn Mobile Bullet Train Called Africa' (which would also be a pretty good name for one of the indie films playing at this massive convention), Tech4Africa founder Gareth Knight explained the contours of this revolution. According to Shapshak, more kids in Africa have access to the Internet than consistent electricity. Nobody owns a PC or can access a fixed-line telephone, so mobile phones are a conduit for everything from email to news to making payments via SMS. ... Many of the mobile devices used in Africa aren't cutting-edge, and SMS-based platforms are a necessity when it comes to sharing information. 'SMS is so fantastic because it gets to every device everywhere,' Shapshak said. ... Here's how a typical SMS platform might work: someone purchasing a box of malaria medicine could send the barcode information to a text number, which would send back an SMS message identifying the drug as real or counterfeit. Famers and other food-producers can receive SMS messages about the best ways to handle pests, for example, or take care of their cows."
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SXSW: How Mobile Devices Are Changing Africa

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  • Wireless Africa (Score:5, Interesting)

    by riverat1 ( 1048260 ) on Sunday March 10, 2013 @02:45PM (#43132325)

    Africa may bypass building up the kind of infrastructure we have in the western world and go straight to a wireless world with local solar power to charge their devices.

    • Re:Wireless Africa (Score:5, Interesting)

      by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Sunday March 10, 2013 @03:00PM (#43132405) Journal
      Maybe. But there has to be a Western World for this type of technological "piggybacking" to occur. But maybe not, too. According to (some) conventional wisdom, the present Corporate policy of shifting manufacturing bases to the least expensive labor market means Foxconn is only awaiting a bit of political stability in Mama Africa.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        Absolutely. And with 3D printing, Africa can bypass all the gloopy old stuff like "Factories" and "clean rooms" and a "chemical industrial base". They'll just 3D print directly fully functional electronics, with the firmware already loaded up, from thin air. Because, technology.
      • Re:Wireless Africa (Score:5, Interesting)

        by demonlapin ( 527802 ) on Sunday March 10, 2013 @03:17PM (#43132517) Homepage Journal
        I went to Kenya and Tanzania last fall (if you get the chance to see the wildebeest migration, go; it's magnificent). Kenya is one of the richest countries in Africa and has some of the best infrastructure on the continent, but it's still got a very long way to go. The primary highway from Mombasa to Nairobi and thence on to Kampala, Uganda, is a two-lane strip of pavement that doesn't even have shoulders for some fairly long segments. The Kenyan freeway includes speed bumps at pedestrian crossings. (It seemed odd at first, but since people are going to walk across the road anyway, it ended up being a fairly reasonable concession to reality.) The papers had quite a few stories about the headaches faced by large firms trying to operate in the country, some of which really are difficult to solve - for example, what to do when a piece of land planned for a factory becomes a squatters' camp? The government wants the factory to bring jobs, but it's not exactly excited about kicking a lot of voters out of their homes to do so.

        I asked our guide/driver what he thought about the Chinese investment in east Africa; his take was that the roads were nice, but "wherever they go, the rhinos and elephants start disappearing". So there's that, too.
      • by jonadab ( 583620 )
        > only awaiting a bit of political stability in Mama Africa

        One wonders how long that wait may be. A large portion of Africa is effectively governed by what essentially amounts to Jacksonian law. (Err, if you Google that, be aware that I'm talking about Jacksonian law as it pertains to Jackson's Whole, not anything to do with Andrew Jackson.)
    • by alen ( 225700 )

      solar is nice, but you still need wires to transfer the power to devices and infrastructure. and there is still night time, clouds and rain to worry about. I believe parts of africa see rain for months at a time in the rainy season

    • Africa may bypass building up the kind of infrastructure we have in the western world and go straight to a wireless world with local solar power to charge their devices.

      Unless Africa loves high latency and low bandwidth, I'd say that they are missing out...

      The contemporary value of, say, the US' massive amounts of copper POTS lines would probably be greater if all that copper were already at the scrapyard(and the owner of all that copper were also at the scrapyard, rather than in a position to extract rents into the forseeable future...); but the laws of physics rather ruthlessly consign wireless to the position of 'convenient, for light duty; but inferior' compared to wir

    • I remember a History teacher once mentioning that if the US enjoyed the same amount of time in power as the Roman Empire, we would see the end of said power around the year 2600 (and yes, I am keenly aware of the double entendre there).

      Anyone wanna lay a bet that we won't make it nearly that long? Africa has a lot going for it - were there to be a confederation formed there, it would be interesting to see the balance of power shift. They have a population, raw resources, and are increasingly tech savvy.
      • Re:Wireless Africa (Score:4, Informative)

        by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Sunday March 10, 2013 @05:23PM (#43133197) Journal

        I remember a History teacher once mentioning that if the US enjoyed the same amount of time in power as the Roman Empire, we would see the end of said power around the year 2600 [...] Anyone wanna lay a bet that we won't make it nearly that long?

        Your comparison is quite pointless. First off, the Roman Empire was constantly shifting and changing. It wasn't a big country that sprung up and lasted intact for 1,000 years.

        Another difference is that the Roman Empire grew out of military conquest of existing countries. And while the US has a sad history of extermination of natives, it's really not the same at all. They aren't going to rise up and take back their lands, in part because we did a very good job of exterminating them.

        The US benefits tremendously from geographic isolation. If the US' power wanes, who is going to invade and start taking lands? Canada or Mexico? Those two big oceans prevent most conflicts that could lead to wars.

        And the Roman Empire isn't the closest historical example we can follow. We have our older cousins, Western Europe, to observe, in real-time even. They're quite a bit older than us, and yet none of the major countries has ceased to exist. Certainly there's been political upheaval in England, but they still exist largely as did centuries before the US came to be.

    • Africa may bypass building up the kind of infrastructure we have in the western world and go straight to a wireless world with local solar power to charge their devices.

      That's not a forward-looking statement at all. That was the reality a decade ago.

      It's an interesting case-study in how poor economics for one technology makes a (bigger) market for a later technology, which is adopter faster than in areas where the previous technology existed. For a similar example, you can see VCDs in Asia while the earli

    • MAY bypass? This is the case already, and has been for quite some time. I just got back from a month in Zambia, and it's completely commonplace to see a mud hut with a thatched roof, with a solar panel on top or set up outside. People are often off-grid, but the mobile phone is almost ubquitous. It's quite common even to see a satellite dish for the flat-screen TV. I'm talking about people in the bush, not in towns and cities.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    That's really the best example they can give? No counterfeiter would ever think to fake barcodes.
    • a search on "counterfeiters change barcodes" might lead you to alter your statement

      YMMV, of course

    • Unique barcodes. Either the counterfeiter will duplicate an existing one - identified as dupe - or uses an invalid one -identified as invalid.
  • When I thought of the revolution in Africa, I always thought it'd be,"I figured they'd have laptops without internet, but with a decent hard drive full of educational materials. Also I figured they'd have solar installations just big enough to run their laptops. This way I thought African's could get a first world education through video, textbook, and interactive resources. I figured the Africans would occasionally travel to a library to download the next series of course work every so many months."

    But what this summary is saying is that Africa actually has a wireless connection to the Internet! And instead of laptops, they have cheap phones. Interesting... I'd assume they generally don't have smart phones now because smart phones consume more power, and they're saying power is a limiting factor. I could see educational smart phone aps teaching people math. I could even theorize how you could educate someone via a dumb phone, but I would reason dumb phones will move over to smart phones eventually. I think it'd be better to start investing in making educational aps for smart phones, than trying to force textbooks into text messages a dumb phone can receive. Maybe if you wanted to tie twitter into SMS, someone could be a twitter teacher. Or maybe you could have a script that played information through SMS if someone requested it. Either way, it doesn't seem too alluring to look to the education revolution of Africa through dumb phones, but with smart phone aps, it does seem quite alluring.

    I'm a computer programmer who's done some Android development. I'm a guy who supports that text books should be free, just to start the education revolution that the poor can't afford. I think even if you can't make money selling educational aps to poor people in Africa, there is societal benefit for doing so. Education helps a person in so many way it is immeasurable. The only people who don't want others educated are evil dictators since your neighbor being educated can help you out if he cures a disease, or at the very least works more efficiently to produce things cheaper. Africa has lots of corrupt governments, so education would help there. But mainly I just like seeing people empowered in general, so if you're not doing anything major right now(aka a real job), you could be writing educational aps for Africa as an act of charity. Down the road as smart phone prices decrease, it'd make an impact. Also first world countries wouldn't mind their children having more interactive educational "games".

    So that is my thought process on the whole thing. People are all mad that the Android market is hard to make money on, but look at the untold charity it could unleash. Imagine if Africa had access to the Android market. Their kids could have all sorts of games to play first off. But the major thing would be that they could get educated too if some of us over here in the first world would make that possible. I've thought the education revolution would start with free text books on laptops, then down the line interactive course work could be designed. But the first line could be interactive coursework as Android aps! Man, it is a good time to be a programmer, we're in demand, even if no one wants to give us a job, we can strike out and help society out.
    • So I went ahead and looked on Android market. It seems like there are many free educational aps already. So there is no real need to code everything by scratch which is good.

      I think the trick would be to compile an indexed syllabus of what aps to master in what order. Remember when you're not in a classroom setting, kids can advance at any rate! So don't put limitations on "this is for a first grader or x years old", simply place the aps in the order that they should be mastered, or groups of aps t
    • by Echemus ( 49002 )

      I doubt Smartphones will make serious in-roads to the African market soon. Do not forget that most of the phones used in Africa are not new devices and have had several owners. Given most modern smartphones are rather fragile items and sensitive to moisture & dust, I doubt they will have that much longevity. (Think of how indestructible feature phones were a decade ago and mostly are today) Having a non-replaceable battery would rule out a lot of current smart phone devices too.

      Also, the top "features"

    • AFAIK the only smartphone people use in Africa, at least around SA, is blackberry.

      Makes more sense to have buttons instead of touch, less power consumption and the free messaging system the blackberry provides.

      Apart from that it's good old feature phones.

  • >> Farmers and other food-producers can receive SMS messages about the best ways to handle pests, for example, or take care of their cows

    Aha...the future of Africa is Monsanto text-spam.

  • by WML MUNSON ( 895262 ) on Sunday March 10, 2013 @05:13PM (#43133147)
    Meanwhile: http://www.howwemadeitinafrica.com/kenyas-tech-industry-over-hyped-or-just-learning-to-walk/24767/ [howwemadeitinafrica.com]

    Since the launch of celebrated mobile money transfer service M-Pesa five years ago, Kenya has been labelled the ‘Silicon Savannah’ and an ‘ICT hub’ with its supposed technology revolution that has overshadowed other African countries. Yet, outside the tech-focused business incubation centres and conferences, many struggle to ‘feel’ the revolution.

    Other than grants and donor funding, very little actual investment has been pumped into local technology startups. Investors say they can’t find investment-ready businesses in Silicon Savannah’s river of startups.

    At last month’s Mobile Web East Africa conference, some participants tore into the hype, with some suggesting that Kenya’s ICT sector had no business going by the “cute” title, Silicon Savannah.

    The influx of grant money and competitions where entrepreneurs are awarded cash prizes, have also been called a curse because it encourages developers to build apps with a social impact, but with little commercial potential.

  • Given that the majority of African mobile users have been using an Alphabetical keyboard (T9), they're gonna love their first confrontation of QWERTY! On a touchscreen no less. The keys will be smaller than their fingertips. The reassuring tactile buttons will be gone. And the intuitive letter order will be messed up. I wish them more than luck. :-)
  • Here's how a typical SMS platform might work: someone purchasing a box of malaria medicine could send the barcode information to a text number, which would send back an SMS message identifying the drug as real or counterfeit.

    Ah, it looks like they're hoping to implement RFC3514, the evil bit. If the barcode includes the evil bit, then it must be counterfeit.

  • I'm living at the moment in the rift valley about 40-50 miles west of Nairobi in the middle of a Maasai community. A surprisingly remote location being so close to the capital of Kenya. The only internet available is via the mobile network. Out in this area, there is no such things as a land line, fiber, etc. Mobile is the only option.

    One anecdote about how mobile has changed things here. Last year there was a land dispute between two groups of Maasai near us that was pretty serious, 100+ Maasai on eac

  • Africa has a helluvalot of semi-blind and illiterates. The advantage of voice comms is that you need not be able to read and write to be able to use it. Someone else can also dial a number for you. So anyone (well, except the deaf) can use a voice phone.
  • Africa is not a country! For a reality check on what's actually happening in the most mobile-connected African countries, please check out my slidedeck from recent research I did on Mobile Opportunities in Africa - Engaging the next Billion - http://www.m-trends.org/2013/02/mobile-opportunities-in-africa-engaging-the-next-billion.html [m-trends.org] The deck is an in-depth analysis of African mobile market penetration in each country. Included are some examples of innovative local entrepreneurs, creating new opportunitie
  • Malaria medication (prevention) is available in most super markets in the US and the rest of the world. Quinine, it's found in "Tonic Water"! I believe the quinine content has gone down since it's original inception, I wonder if it's sold (tonic water) at the local groceries I see in documentaries that always carry Coke products. I also wonder if the quinine content has been jacked up because of the need or reduced to promote the sale of the drugs...

"I may be synthetic, but I'm not stupid" -- the artificial person, from _Aliens_