No other sector has impacted the lives of people across sub-Saharan Africa in recent years as fundamentally as ICT. The privatisation of telecoms in most African countries at the start of this century precipitated a large uptake of mobile phones.
Today mobile penetration in Africa is almost 90% and the growth has not stopped there. As usage prices decrease, mobile phone ownership has reached more than 100% in some countries, with some people owning multiple handsets. Yet local economic empowerment is still overlooked. The World Bank estimates that 48% of people living in sub-Saharan Africa live in extreme poverty. However, little is discussed of how ICT has enhanced their incomes.
M-Pesa, which was developed in 2007 by the Kenyan telecoms operator Safaricom, revolutionised the country's banking system as it enabled unbanked people to access mobile phone-based financial services. However, subsequent attempts by large firms to offer low-income households business services remain limited.
Nonetheless, local entrepreneurs are providing an alternative route to the country's development needs. The M-Farm mobile phone application, developed by a computer scientist from Kenya, reveals that the country's ICT sector is undergoing a second revolutionary wave powered by its entrepreneurs. Designed to tackle a lack of pricing transparency, which causes smallholder farmers to undervalue their produce in the market place, M-Farm offers farmers up-to-date yield prices directly on their phones. Given that agriculture is one of Kenya’s largest sectors, M-Farm could significantly improve farmers’ earnings and boost Kenya’s GDP.
African governments have begun recognising the potential of entrepreneurs to boost the region’s growth through technology. As a result, more than 90 hubs of innovation have been created in 20 countries across Africa. Moreover foreign companies have also created innovation hubs as a way of ultimately boosting their bottom lines. Indeed, IBM launched a research laboratory in Kenya to focus on product innovation.
As Africa’s ICT sector enters a new wave, largely driven by its entrepreneurs, the World Economic Forum’s Networked Readiness Index reveals that African countries are using just a fraction of the ICT potential for their development and well-being. As ICT empowers more Africans to develop innovative solutions, the next wave of ICT development could precipitate a development that is led by Africans offering local solutions.
Mazdak Rafaty is managing partner of Ludwar International Consultancy and SME advisor to joint Emirati-German Chamber of Commerce.