Africa’s mobile revolution

two women mobile header

A transformation has been taking place across the African continent, especially below the Sahara. And it’s accelerating. These developments will have an enormous impact on the 1.2 billion people who live on the continent. More importantly, what is taking place there will soon reverberate across the world.

For a number of years, I worked as a social impact investor and advisor for a number of global organizations and African governments. Especially in West Africa, if someone wanted to know your phone number, get ready to share at least 30 digits. I would share my Canadian number but that was completely impractical for everyone. So, I would share two local numbers because I was told, “You have to have two SIM cards, Tom.”

Africa is one of the fastest growing mobile markets in the world, with ZDNet forecasting an additional 300 million new subscribers by 2025.

Phone signals weren’t very reliable and having access to at least two networks helped mitigate any risk. It was not uncommon to overhear people say, “I can’t hear you. Let me call back on my other number.” And this is how the revolution began.

According to ZD Net, nearly three-quarters of the population has a SIM connection (about 747 million people), mostly on 2G. Africa is one of the fastest growing mobile markets in the world, with ZDNet forecasting an additional 300 million new subscribers by 2025. Without access to many of the apps we take for granted in the West, the prevalence of this basic mobile phone tech unlocked one of the greatest opportunities to improve the lives of many.

Better data, better healthcare

doctor in African town performs check up on child

Let’s consider health. It’s no secret that much of the continent suffers some of the most significant public health challenges in the world. And despite decades of investments, progress has been difficult.

During my time working in Africa, we came up with projects and tools that we deeply felt would make a significant impact, but we were essentially blind. We had little data to work with and that data was often dated. Traditional methods used surveys that took years to collect and compile. And in-country statistical offices often struggled with large demands and under-resourced capabilities.

But the phones changed everything because now we could count. Coalitions were formed between governments, donors and telecommunication companies to leverage new data sources. Triangulating cell phone activity with satellite imagery improved the deployment of vaccination teams to maximize the number of people they engaged.

I could look at photos taken from mobile phones to see how many supplies were left at a clinic, which helped design a new supply chain system. And chatbots allowed a much larger group of people to seek answers to questions that overworked nurses and doctors had little time to answer.

Impact of innovation

three African farmers using mobile application in Kenya

The pace of innovation has not stopped. There have been further investments into expanding mobile phone networks, especially in once difficult-to-reach parts of the continent. Further, online tools have expanded the pool of youth capable of developing homegrown solutions, causing the obsolescence of many foreign-headquartered NGOs.

My inbox is increasingly filled with friends asking for advice of launching their start-up ventures. The GRID³ (Geo-Reference Infrastructure and Demographic Data for Development) program is one such venture. Backed with funding from the Gates Foundation (my former employer), GRID³ provides something that few governments have been able to achieve: highly accurate, up-to-date population data. They are able to do achieve this through the use of “micro-censuses” and enhanced satellite imagery. The Nigerian government has made this technology one of the key components of its national health strategy.

Data alone is not going to solve many of the challenges policymakers face whether in Africa or not. But if we’re going to talk about the transformational impact caused by the widespread use of mobile technology, we need to make the African experience a key part of that story.

Technology can be an incredibly empowering tool for even the most marginalized populations.

Three lessons in digital transformation

There are several key lessons. First, it was never just about smartphones. Though smartphones do matter, many African fintechs developed solutions purely based on SMS.

Second, it’s cliché to say ingenuity knows no borders but it’s inspiring to see it happen from unexpected places, and we need to be active in finding these stories. They matter because they’re a reminder that technology can be an incredibly empowering tool for even the most marginalized populations.

And finally, the rest of the world needs to wake up as emerging tech hubs surface in Africa from places like Lagos and Nairobi. Jumia, Africa’s largest e-commerce platform recently went public on the NYSE. It is one of the continents first unicorns but it will certainly not be the last tech giant in this continent where people still need multiple phone numbers.  

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