Africa’s App Revolution

by Holly Heiberg on December 14, 2010

Ushahidi Africa App

I was recently researching crisis mapping to see if TRG could mash-up existing technology with a mobile app my team is building.  Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing-mapping tool used for the Kenya elections in 2007, has quickly become one of the most sophisticated and adaptable platforms. From election crisis to the Haiti earthquake to the Gulf oil spill, the platform continues to morph and improve as it is used. This led me to dig a bit deeper into the skunkworks development going on in Africa. I found that Africans are creating some of the most interesting and innovative mobile and crowdsourcing apps for some of Africa’s—and for that matter the world’s—largest problems. Mobile hyperlocal networking and cloud technology apps are helping Africans create enhanced bottom-up economic development, accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship, ensure more transparent and accountable governments, and build a stronger civil society.

Where African nations lagged behind in the adoption of desktop computers and Web 1.0, they may be ahead of the mobile curve, relatively speaking, when it comes to the adoption of networking via mobile phones, hyperlocal applications, and utilizing crowd sourcing/user-generated content in real-time. Increased smartphone adoption is likely to accelerate this trend as 3G/4G deployments coupled with significant terrestrial and submarine fiber deployments triple broadband connections in 2011.

The popularity of apps in Africa is rising as they increasingly demonstrate the ability to directly improve the livelihoods of Africans. As mobile networks continue to expand at more accessible pricing, there will be greater demand for local content and locally designed applications. Already there are apps that affect the way companies, governments and non-profits communicate with an increasing demographic of Africans in regions that were previously harder to reach on topics like micro-finance, banking, health, weather, commodity markets, emergency and disaster reporting, and sports.

Health

Take for example, Text To Change (TTC), which first piloted a program in Mbarara, Uganda, aimed at expanding HIV prevention and uptake of voluntary HIV counseling and testing. It did this through an interactive and incentive-based SMS multiple-choice quiz. At the end of the campaign, participants received an SMS encouraging them to get an HIV test. According to Johan Hellstrom of the Swedish International Development Agency, the pilot resulted in a 40 percent increase in the number of patients getting tested for HIV/AIDS. The program is now being launched in 11 other African nations.

Economy

Image via The Daily Nation

Africans have lacked access to traditional banking, impeding business locally, nationally, and regionally.  M-Pesa and Zap, two popular mobile money transaction apps developed and tailored for Africans, are growing exponentially: A 2009 survey in Kenya showed that the use of services from non-bank financial institutions had grown from 8% to 18% since 2006. This cumulatively contributed to an increase in those who are financially included from 26% to 41%.

Politics

As mentioned, Ushahidi is a crowdsourcing platform that relies on citizen reports of incidents via SMS and Twitter, which are then uploaded and mapped to a website. It was developed in 2007 and 2008 for post-election monitoring in Kenya, and the Ushahidi platform has since been used all over the world for a number of good governance-related and disaster relief interventions. In Kenya, Ushahidi helped aid organizations pinpoint areas of violence and supply food and other aid where needed.  In Uganda, Ushahidi was successfully used to report incidents and violence during the September Kampala riots in 2009 when radio stations were closed down, TV shows censored, networks jammed and public transportation down. The Uganda and Kenya elections are great examples of how technology combined with mobile platforms are able to circumvent government restrictions, reframe the narrative and provide crucial information that traditional media are unable to obtain in a timely manner.

Not surprisingly, some African governments are censoring technology and fear its momentum.  For example, during the Mozambique elections in September, the government found that protesters were using text messaging to organize, so it pressured cell phone companies to turn off texting. The Mozambique crackdown came within weeks of a curtailment on Blackberries by governments all over the world, who claim security concerns as a justification for censoring. Hopefully, adaptability to new technology and the networks using mobile apps will outpace institutional attempts of control.

Future of Africa App Revolution

For now, I am excited about the vast possibilities.  Will the App Revolution be the tipping point that moves Africa beyond some of its deeply entrenched social and political problems? How will greater accessibility affect the revolution? And how can we build off of the successes in Africa for other parts of the world?

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Holly Heiberg is a senior strategist at The Rendon Group specializing in social media, self-organizing systems and Southeast Asia.  She currently resides in Oregon and can be reached at hheiberg@rendon.com.

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