African promises
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The discussion about automation, digitisation, and their implications is completely different in Africa. “For us, technology is not about automation, but about how to make it easier for us to solve our major problems,” says Thebe Ikalafeng, a marketing expert and consultant. African policymakers are focused on more pressing problems, like poverty, reduced access to markets and market information, and financial services. In many countries, a new generation of African entrepreneurs has started tackling these issues using approaches specifically tailored to African realities and cultures.
The mobile payment service M-Pesa launched in 2007 by Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile-network operator. Originally, it was developed for microfinance loans. For in-bank transactions and withdrawals, M-Pesa relies on a Safaricom agents network. One study found that in rural Kenyan households that adopted M-Pesa, incomes increased by five to 30 percent. “More than 50 percent of the Kenyan economy goes through M-Pesa. This shows you how technology in Africa is an enabler,” Ikalafeng says. Prior to M-Pesa, 5% of Kenyan adults had a bank account. Now 77% do.
Or take WinSenga, an app and a toolkit developed by three Ugandan students aimed at lowering maternal and child mortality rates after birth. Rather than installing an ultrasound machine in hospitals with uncertain power supplies, WinSenga provides a toolkit for nurses and healthcare workers which includes a horn-shaped stethoscope with a cheap microphone that is plugged into a smartphone. In a country where ultrasonic diagnosis is lacking in hospitals, WinSenga improved healthcare in a way that took into account local context and infrastructure.
Another example is Ghana’s Farmerline, which helps farmers track crops, prices, and markets. In Ghana, 42 percent of the population works in agriculture, many on small scale farms with an average size of 1.2 hectares. The Farmerline service includes advice via voice messages, a feature to reach illiterate farmers, or SMS, for farmers who have a cell phone but not a smartphone. Its founder, who grew up on a farm, now runs offices in Accra, Washington, and Zurich.
Though relatively simple technologically, M-Pesa and Farmerline show ways digital devices can be adapted to African realities to great effect. “Africa should find solutions that match African needs,” Ikalafeng says. “Every country must create solutions which bring their people out of poverty, which create opportunities and create a better life for their people.”
Ikalafeng does not want Africa to industrialise via labour-intensive industries such as textiles, the way many Asian countries have. “We don’t have time to go that old,  expensive route,” he says. Instead, he wants the continent to find its own path. “Of course Africa can compete,” Ikalafeng says. “But they should not try to match Europe or America.”