Can innovation and technology resolve the various issues facing the African continent? As many are now aware Africa is one of the fastest growing regions of the World, second only to Asia, with a large youth population. The current African population is 1.2 billion people, which is 16% of the World’s population, with a median age of 19.5.
The youth population is technology natives and has leapfrogged the desktop/laptop technology that has been prevalent in the developed World for mobile technology. The mobile phone in Africa has become a game-changer and according to Ericsson by 2019 there will be 930 million mobile phones on the continent. That is almost one for every person which means there will be greater mobile penetration than electricity penetration. Africans are mobile, and mobile is the future.
How can mobile technology assist with the myriad of issues that the continent faces? Africa has the highest rates of urbanization in the World, poor infrastructure, in certain countries bad governance, food security issues that have been further magnified by climate change, a health care system that is antiquated or non-existent, an education system that is severely trailing the rest of the World, and a business environment that is extremely complex and challenging.
Even with these challenges Africa is one of the last “blue oceans”, a market desperately in need of development that was largely forgotten until recently. Africa has a fast growing domestic market, innovation and entrepreneurship is growing, and it’s become faster and easier to do business in many countries across the continent. I will look at two issues for this article, agriculture and education, and look at how technology can provide potential solutions for the some of the problems described above.
Can technology allow Africans to feed themselves?
By no means am I an expert on agriculture or climate change and how climate change has affected the food supply on the African continent. But industry experts like WRI, World Resources Institute, have studied the issue extensively and their data shows that climate change has directly affected the region’s ability to feed itself. The region already depends on imports for 17% of animal products, 25% of cereal products, and 66% for vegetable oil products. More than 200 million people, 27% of the population, are chronically undernourished, and 40% of children under the age of five are stunted by malnutrition. The population of the continent is also expected to reach 2.1 billion by the year 2050.
These are four areas where mobile technology has aided agriculture and farmers in Africa:
- Access to information: Mobile technology provides opportunities for farmers and business to leverage the use of inexpensive sources of information. This information helps level the playing field and can also help inform a number of decisions.
- Access to market prices: Mobile phones are allowing farmers to gain access to real information about crop prices before they travel long distances to markets. Cell phone services employ accurate information about wholesale and retail prices of crops, ensuring farmers can negotiate deals with traders and improve their timing of getting crops to the market.
- Instant weather information: Mobile technology provides farmers with crucial weather data so they can properly manage their crops.
- Product traceability: With information about disease, pest tracking, and storage product traceability can improve public health by pinpointing the origin of produce, allowing officials to communicate risk information to consumers and others in the supply chain. A connected system allows for more efficient and effective farming methods and provides information about problems to reduce risks to farmers and consumers.
Education offers light for a previously dark continent
Every year over 30 million children across the continent miss out on primary school education, and 10 million children drop out of primary school. Even those who complete primary school often leave with literacy and numeracy skills far below expected levels. There is a major shortage of trained and motivated teachers, and books are very expensive as they are usually produced and shipped from Europe. Even with these challenges demand for education is booming. Africans have an enormous thirst for learning and online education is growing with learning on mobile devices leading the way.
Here are some areas where mobile technology can aid education:
- Mobile learning: Mobile technology offers a practical way to sidestep physical and computing infrastructure deficits and allow people to learn wherever they happen to be at incredibly low cost.
- Mobile devices for reading: For millions of Africans, much of their daily reading and writing happens on mobile phones in the form of SMS and instant message (IM) chats. In many countries mobiles are the only channel for effectively distributing reading material, given the high cost of books and their distribution, especially to rural areas.
- Customized content: Mobile devices can be used to deliver appropriate and personalized content, in ways that print books cannot. Mobile devices offer interactivity, the ability for readers to comment on content, the ability to connect with other readers, and to publicly ask questions and receive support.
- Social Networking: Social networking is extremely popular across the continent and social media sites offer another opportunity to reach students with relevant and timely educational content. Social networking sites are already being used by teachers and learners to share resources and provide support in open discussions. For communities that are geographically dispersed and cannot afford to meet in person, the support from such virtual communities is invaluable.
These are just a few ways that mobile technology can assist with some of the challenges that the African continent faces. Of course they are not the only solutions or answers, but they do provide hope and opportunity. In my next article I will look at how mobile technology can provide solutions in the areas of healthcare, infrastructure, and the need for more foreign direct investment, especially in the areas of technology from places like Silicon Valley.