A recent advert by a major mobile phone company in the UK showed a comely young lady dangerously leaning out of a window grabbing a mobile phone and looking for a better signal. “With us – the ad claimed – you will not have that problem, even inside a building”. Perhaps, but UK mobile phone customers know well that coverage is indeed a problem in many areas of the country, especially when you want to use 3G facilities (i.e., the technology that allows surfing the net). This is why it is all the more surprising that some African countries are far ahead of European or American high-tech societies.
As per May, 2012, Angola and Namibia unveiled state of the art 4G coverage, beating most of Europe at their own game. Movicel of Angola and MTC of Namibia have launched commercial LTE (Long Term Evolution) services, becoming the first in Africa to go 4G. Egypt, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya are just behind the corner. LTE is the technology behind fourth-generation mobile services.
In the past decade, enhancement in data applications in Africa has been remarkable. In many cases, local markets pioneered technologies tailored to their needs. The local innovation attending to local needs generated vastly popular data applications from social media to banking. All of this activity around mobile applications has been driving data usage upwards, with voice traffic growing strongly because of network expansions in rural areas.
Observers have it that cellular-network traffic in Africa will grow tenfold from the 173 billion megabytes in 2011 to over 1.5 trillion by 2016. Such has been the trend in the past years, that several operators responded quickly by deploying 3G and 3.5G networks. 3G is now standard in 52 countries, at least in the major urban areas. 65% of operational 3G networks in Africa have been rolled out in the past two years. This means that the infrastructure is the latest available and optimized for data and voice alike.
Bright Simons was a model student at Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School, a prestigious academic institution founded in 1938 in Legon, Ghana. Simon won a scholarship to study astrophysics at Durham University, in the UK. Yet, astrophysics seemed a little useless when compared to the needs of his home country. Bright wanted to help change Ghana for the better, but with little money and a degree on stargazing, he could not do much. However, being smart, he realized he could take advantage of an existing reality: mobile phones. “Phone companies had invested a huge amount of money. All you needed was a good idea to convince them to give you access to this infrastructure,” says he.
It was when he learnt about counterfeit medicines that Bright had, well, a bright idea. Fake or poor quality pharmaceutical products are a massive problem in West Africa. It is estimated that they account for 30% of all medicines on sale. Counterfeits do not help healing the sick and kill up to 2,000 people daily worldwide. Bright’s idea was to print a code on all packaging. Consumers need only to text the code and receive a validation in matter of seconds. The service is offered by MPedigree, the company Bright founded, and it is paid by pharmaceutical and phone companies which agreed not to pass the cost to consumers. MPedigree now works with 20 telecoms in three West African countries. It is also in the process to extend its reach to the whole region.
The system is now being taken as a model for the industry in India and is being extended across south Asia. This is a new trend: innovations from Africa are going to other parts of the world. MPedigree is not alone. MPesa, a system of money sharing pioneered in Kenya is now used in other countries, as far afield as Afghanistan. Ushaidi, again from Kenya, developed a social forum platform used in many countries to collect data and support human rights and social changes.
Bright Simons believes this is just the start, and Africa will be in the forefront of innovation that have the power to transform the world. At least he has shown that change is possible. MPedigree has been a successful novelty, developed with little money. Now, if you live in rural Midlands or upcountry New York, try and find out if the pill you are taking for high blood pressure is counterfeit …….