In 2017, Dr. Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Republic of Botswana, insisted her country and continent needed an "innovation revolution".
She probably saw what many see, that smartphone technology is rapidly increasing progress and infrastructure for a continent that desperately needs it. The good news is that we may already be in the middle of it. The resulting development, specifically with smartphone technology and access, is bringing waves of opportunity for people in Africa.
As the GSM Association (GSMA) details in its 2017 Mobile Economy report, the mobile market in sub-Saharan Africa is growing faster than any other region of the world. In fact, its growth is increasing at numbers 50% higher than the global average. This is due to the increasingly affordable price of smartphones, which dropped from an average price of $230 to $160 as far back as in 2015 alone.
Although it is still difficult for many to afford the latest and greatest, Asian companies such as Transsion Holdings (producer of the TECNO, Infinix and itel brands) and Gionee continue to make products specifically for the budget markets of Africa. Furthermore, the millions of recycled phones people leave behind when they upgrade are managing to find a market in Africa. The effect this is having on digital technological offerings, especially eCommerce, is truly revolutionary.
The GSMA predicts that Africa will continue to lead mobile development for the next five years. This is critical for the well-being of all walks of life in Africa since mobile technology now leads to significant social and economic development in any given region and in many industry sectors.
Mobile technology is now the most important industry for delivering greater "inclusion". According to the GSMA, this technology-driven inclusion contributes significantly to economic growth and jobs.
For example, smartphones are now giving people in Africa access (inclusion) to mobile banking. This has major ramifications for business opportunities in Africa where only 6% of the population has hitherto had access to brick and mortar bank services.
Suddenly, consumers and businesses in Africa not only have better access to funds, they also have micro-financing opportunities that would never have existed otherwise.
New payment facilitators such as Paystack and DPO are examples of fintechs tapping into the opportunity presented by digital to provide smooth transaction handling for online commerce. Therefore, mobile technology is leading to digital development and consumer access specific to the continent and its needs.
Nevertheless, it is ironic that Africa's lack of physical infrastructure has actually led to the propagation and ubiquity of digital mobile technology in the continent. The simple fact is that mobile innovation is much cheaper and flexible to attain than other forms of wealth creation infrastructure at this point in time, increasing the incentive to take advantage.
Almost 35% of people in Africa do not have access to paved roads. However, from 2016 to 2020 it is estimated by the GSMA that mobile broadband connections will jump from 33% to 60%, with relative increases in infrastructural investment to support this growth.
This will increase inclusion in an unprecedented way. One way that the growth in access through digital mobile can be made to impact even more on the continent’s economic development is to encourage intensive development of home-grown or home-focused assets: more applications and software that is developed with a specific understanding of Africa’s social, economic and cultural realities.
The good news is that young professionals in Africa are adapting to these developments as rapidly as they are happening. The better news is that Africa has the lowest median age of any country continent AND the fastest growing population.
This is beneficial because youth are more likely to adapt to radical digital growth. Plus, businesses see opportunity in population. The more people they can service, the more return they can get on their investment. Hence, higher populations typically lead to higher investment from outside forces which spurs development. India and China just went through similar situations in their own ways.
Until recently, the costs of research and development that came in tandem with innovation meant that only the wealthiest nations and companies could significantly participate in such ventures. Thanks to mobile technology and micro-financing, that privilege is reaching lower and lower through the ranks of society.
As it stands, African countries currently account for 5 of the 10 nations with the most startups. In particular, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco, Senegal and South Africa's participation in technological advances has made them attractive destinations for transplants, which pours even more attention and development into the revolution. Together, these nations accounted for almost 60% of foreign direct investment in 2016.
At the forefront of this revolution is mobile app development. As previously mentioned, mobile banking and micro-financing are complete game changers when it comes to the little squares contained on a smartphone. Other apps are solving long-standing problems in Africa.
To look at a wider perspective, mobile technology is simply the future. Unique mobile subscribers will jump from 420 million to 535 million in between 2016 and 2020. This growth in subscribers will lead to a growth in interest, new markets and unprecedented opportunities for marketing and advertising.
When interested young Africans invest their time, energy and thoughts into mobile technologies, they will simultaneously be investing in their countries. Therefore, the most important thing for the African technology revolution is for Africa to develop its young talent.
Giving the highly populated and highly motivated African youth access to coding information and startup internships will do the most for digital development in Africa. As we have seen with China and India, this will lead to an overall better quality of life and quantity of career options for the future of Africa.
About the Author
Dr. Peter Atorough is the Founder and CEO of Swype Global Ltd, UK and an Assistant Professor at The Robert Gordon University, Scotland. Swype Global is developing innovative apps to support business processes and increase individuals’ access to products and services, with a specific and streamlined focus on Africa. Contact: [email protected].