At the end of the last century, Sub-Saharan Africa had less phone fixed lines than Manhattan. Some claimed that the whole continent had less connectivity than Luxembourg, a tiny state even for European standards. Today the situation is changed. There are at least 600 million mobile phones working in the continent, and at least 100 million internet connections. Africa is the world’s fastest-growing region for mobile penetration, with more subscribers than the US or the EU. Africa still lags behind when it comes to access to clean water, a bank account, or electricity; yet, the technology revolution means access to data and to financial services unthinkable just years ago. For governments, it means a new way to overcome bottlenecks, roll out services and achieve development targets.
The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) boom is due to new undersea fibre optic cables, but also to a change of mentality from the side of the public. Inland connectivity is also grown and it has supported a change of awareness in society. Access to phones allows citizens new ways of political participation and the chance to expose corruption, thus supporting democratic reforms. The celebrated Arab Spring could not have happened without mobile phones.
Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary at Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communications, is enthusiastic. “There has been a lot of progress in building the infrastructure, developing local content and local applications. Kenya’s IT infrastructure is actually better than most developed countries, and the diffusion of IT in Kenya has been very high,” he says. Ndemo refers to the Open Data Initiative announced in 2011. The government has been working with World Bank support to upload almost all existing government registries. Data on everything from national censuses and exam results, to government expenditure and public service locations – and everything in between – is being digitised. “We’ve made a lot of progress in areas like the judiciary and land registry, and we are now digitising health records – starting with Kenyatta National Hospital and moving onto the district level,” Ndemo explains. Records will provide crucial insights into health trends and support local research.
From 2013, the government will run e-procurement services, which could save it an annual £0.5bn. Add that to the estimated £1bn in potential savings by putting judicial records online, and an additional £2.5bn from efficiency gains within agriculture and the gains become clear.
The ICT revolution is taking hold across the continent. Many countries have had success in implementing so-called integrated financial management information systems. This allows governments to manage their budgets and report revenues. Governments are working with businesses to roll out services that can help overcome constraints such as low agricultural productivity, and the shortage of doctors and teachers. For governments, providing these services means better collaboration, both between ministries and with the private sector. In 2010, South Africa, the continent’s economic powerhouse, declared the ICT sector a top priority. While progress in the field has been uneven, the country’s electronic tax filing systems – managed by South African Revenue Services – is widely recognized as a world class model.
At the Connected Kenya summit last April, Kenya’s ICT Board announced the ambitious plan of making the country one of the top 10 ICT hubs in the world. It would do this through supporting existing local ICT companies and creating 20 new multinational tech companies. The plan might seem far-fetched, but there are positive signs. The government is determined to build a technological hub in Konza, south of the capital. Kenya’s government has also embarked on a project in partnership with IBM, hoping to provide solutions for energy, security and, above all, traffic issues in Nairobi. The group is studying how to use cell phones to pinpoint traffic build ups within Nairobi. The data collected will be used to devise alternative routes, providing that information to the city planners, but also informing traffic police and emergency vehicles in real time.
Again in Kenya, millions of people rely only on rural clinics for their health requirements. Even the easiest check up and test can become a major problem. Today, samples are collected at the clinic, and then shipped to one of five national laboratories; the results are posted back to the clinic. Delivery of results can take weeks, at times it never materializes. Lack of results means poor diagnoses and often leads to the wrong treatment. Kenya’s Ministry of Health is working with the Clinton Health Access Initiative to develop SMS-enabled printers. Tests results will be texted to the head nurse, who will be able to print them at the rural health centre. This will cut waiting time to matter of hours and allow better diagnosis.
Similar developments are springing up across sectors. Agriculture is an area of focus: “Previously we never measured productivity, over-utilisation of the land or productivity drops,” Mr Ndemo says. That is being changed by applications such as M-Farm, a service the World Bank’s Mr Kelly describes as “a kind of Groupon for farmers”, which allows farmers to receive information about market prices, and aggregate to purchase inputs at wholesale value, and find buyers – all via text message. The setup bypasses productivity curbs, such as costly inputs or the middlemen who offer farmers below-market prices for their produce. It is also a monitor for productivity levels. The new technologies could spell the onset of new and sustained development across the continent. Problems remain, not least resistance to change amongst less educated citizens. But mobile technologies and growing connectivity mean a unique opportunity to leapfrog growth constraints. For Africa, the mobile is both a product and a driver of a stronger, wealthier, more engaged society.