Lessons from Africa's Tech Scene

Two staff from iCowThe typical depiction of technological innovation is one that goes from a lab or company in the US or Europe to the markets of the developed worlds and then, after a certain period of time, spreads to all other parts of the world. Working in the field of tech for social change, however, makes you appreciate that innovation need not always conform to this standard model. Consider the world of mobile banking. Kenya’s M-Pesa, for example, has a market share that most banks in the world would kill for. Of a population of approximately 41 million, almost 15 million are active users. Paying bills and transferring money to relatives are now possible in a country where the number of physical banks is far too low to be able to support everyone requiring banking services. Other parts of the world are now playing catch up as citizens expect to be able to use their smartphones for virtually everything from banking to shopping to checking bus times. Banking should be simple, secure and user-centred. Kenya’s experience teaches that if you can get the basics right, people will use it.

In Nigeria, meanwhile, Pledge51’s Constitution App has received in excess of half a million downloads. In fact, during the two or three days when the Occupy Nigeria protests of January 2012 were at their height, the app was downloaded 40,000 times – a remarkable rate of downloads that actually caused the servers to crash. I don’t know of any European democracy app that has been downloaded so much. Surprising as it may seem, the nimble Nigerian Constitution App – created on a shoestring budget – ranks among the most popular democracy apps anywhere in the world. It’s hard to believe that an app digitising a constitution could be quite so popular, but it just goes to show that success can come in many different forms from some unexpected quarters.

Back in Kenya, the rapid growth of iCow is astounding. The system, which offers dairy farmers time-critical SMS updates on the gestation cycle of their cow, has gone from strength to strength and is on the verge of expanding nationwide. In data-poor communities or countries, practical usable data has great value. Information that can increase productivity and raise profits is greatly valued. I recently had the pleasure of staying on a farm in the UK – the farmer there uses a paper chart to track their cows’ progress. It’s a little old fashioned by Kenyan standards.