By Alexis Garrett Stodghill
Most Western news about Africa focuses on the seeding of al-Qaeda terrorism in nations like Yemen, or revolutionary battles against dictators like Muammar Gaddafi. But there is another, quieter disruption taking place in countries like Kenya in which black coders and tech entrepreneurs are creating their own boom. In Alex Perry’s article for Time, the author outlines numerous stories of success that have had international implications emerging from the continent, chronicling Africa’s exponential growth in the sector. Mobile tech via cell phones in particular has seen a host of creative applications sparked by African inventiveness. About the impact of cell phones on Africa’s economies, Perry reports:
According to studies by the London Business School, the World Bank and consultants at Deloitte, for every 10 additional mobiles per 100 Africans, GDP rises 0.6% to 1.2%. […]
But this is not a story merely of how technology is changing Africa. Africans are changing technology right back. They now use text-message networks to send e mail, run social networks (South Africa’s MXit) and even verify from a bar code whether a drug is genuine or fake (mPedigree in Ghana and Sproxil in Nigeria). Africa’s influence on global technology is most marked in mobile banking: with its M Pesa service (M for mobile, pesa meaning money in Swahili), Kenyan operator Safaricom became the first-ever telecom company to create a mass mobile-banking service, setting industry standards now being copied from California to Kabul.
Africans, and Kenyans in particular, are making their presence felt online too. When Kenya erupted in violence in the aftermath of a disputed general election in late 2007, a handful of Nairobi code writers created Ushahidi (meaning testimony in Swahili), a data-mapping platform to collate and locate reports of unrest sent in by the public via text message, e mail and social media. The idea was simply to find out what was happening. Says Ushahidi co-founder Juliana Rotich: “The TV was playing The Sound of Music while we could see houses burning in our neighborhood.” But the desire to know what’s going on turned out to be universal, and Ushahidi quickly became the world’s default platform for mapping crises, disasters and political upheaval. According to Rotich, by May of this year, Ushahidi, which is free to download, had been used 14,000 times in 128 countries to map everything from last year’s earthquake in Haiti to this year’s Japanese tsunami and the Arab Spring.
We can only expect more African tech companies to blow up as plans to add Internet cables in the region are executed in the coming years. The cost of connectivity will go down and the speed of the average connection will go up as a result, leading to more involvement by the already active community. Growing investment from companies like Google, which has its regional headquarters in Kenya’s Nairobi, will lead to similar inventions like cloud computing, which came out of South Africa.
But unlike South Africa, the most developed African country, Kenya is the nation tech onlookers are observing with the greatest expectations. It has promoted the free and open use of telecom, unlike leaders that over-control or underdevelop state resources to the detriment of their useful application. Kenya invests in tech infrastructure so that both companies and citizens can enjoy the Internet as “a basic human right,” the nation’s information minister told Time.
Such is its affinity for technology that “Kenya’s love for IT has earned it the nickname Silicon Savanna,” Perry wrote. Playing on the name of America’s tech hub — Silicon Valley — this moniker shows just how important the region has become as a leader in international innovation.
Read more in detail about the leaders, movers and shakers of Silicon Savanna on Time.com. Does this movement shake up your vision of Africa as impoverished and underdeveloped? Is investing in its burgeoning tech sector something you would consider? Leave your comments below!