Editor's Choice, July 2011: connectivity, business potential, and rapid growth in 'Digital Africa'
Village youth on Facebook, undersea cables linking Africa to the virtual globe, mobile innovation, democracy in the ether, Google in Swahili, Amharic and Zulu, predictions of a $25 internet-enabled phone, business opportunities for the giants, such as Nokia, and for the micro-operators, such as hawkers shifting from selling pirated DVDs to entertainment bundles on memory cards. All these and more are coved in this month's Editor's Choice - "Digital Africa" - an award-winning article by J.M. Ledgardon in More Intelligent Life.
The optimism or hype about rising connectivity, mobile banking and the opportunities for Africanto leap-frog through development are familiar. But this article gives much more: informed history, facts on current trends, and insights on emerging opportunities for the poor and for business. Essential reading for any business wanting a glimpse of the changes sweeping through African markets and generations.
It was only in 1998 that a 64K modem cost $16,000 a month in Kenya. And it was just one year ago that fibre-optic cables emerged from the ocean at Mombasa to deliver 3.84 terabits per second to 18 countries.
Ledgard illustrates how Africans - particularly today's youth - are exploiting technology to the full, updating Facebook profiles while Mogadishu's gunfire is heard overhead, charging mobiles with bikes, car batteries and solar panels where the grid is lacking, joining the opposition in the safey of internet anonymity.
He identifies the three business giants that will dominate digital Africa for the next decade: Facebook, Google and Nokia. The Nokia 1100 is the 'AK47 of communication,' the most popular mobile phone ever made, with over 50 million in use in Africa. It provides what base of pyramid consumers want. West African fishermen like it because if floats, can be taken apart and dried in the sun, and still works. It lacks the connectivity that rich-country consumers may now regard as normal, but not for long. Ledgardon predicts an internet-enabled $25 phone from Nokia by 2015, with the only question being whether Nokia can keep its sure touch delivering value-added to consumers at the base of the pyramid. If so, if planned 'Life Tools' apps take off, including farmers tips and books for children, it could add a percentage point to Africa's GDP.
Despite dominance of three global companies, the article conveys the strong local and African flavour of digital Africa. Yes, Facebook enables youth follow fashion, football or Friends, but digital Africa is a platform for Shujaaz, a comic read by half of Kenyan children; computer use mirrors the small screens of mobile phones that are the dominant window to the connected world; unwritten languages and illiterate users are finding their way onto the internet, Africa's oral tradition will emerge in the voice-activated and video technologies, and supply chain tools for small businesess are next up on the agenda. So Ledgard is optimistic, that digital Africa will herald return of voice - Africa's voice.
Digital Africa won the Diageo Africa Reporting Award for Best ICT feature last week. It's not just a good example of African reporting, but a spur to optimistic and lateral thinking for all engaged in inclusive business in Africa. Reading this articles generates optimism in two ways. Firstly, as connectivity increases, business opportunities multiply. Whether in construction, agro-processing or medicine, it is a rare business that won't be affected by the spread of mobile internet and a generation that learns and communicates differently.
Secondly, it seems that digital Africa need not head into a digital divide. Success, it seems, is being driven by technologies and products that can speak to mass market needs: of course a $25 dollar phone or a $100 tablet may remain out of reach for families struggling on less than $1 a day, but businesses are striving to build the long-term market. Because of that, inclusive business approaches are inherent. Whether innovation will thrive fastest in an internet library for Africa, social networking by youth, or hacking by informal sector entrepreneurs, cannot yet be judged, but inclusive innovation most certainly is there.