From Tunisia to SA, apps take Africa by storm

Sunday December 4 2011

Young innovators at work at the iHub offices at Bishop Magua Centre on Ngong Road in Nairobi. Photo/STEPHEN MUDIARI

Young innovators at work at the iHub offices at Bishop Magua Centre on Ngong Road in Nairobi. Photo/STEPHEN MUDIARI 

By Samantha Spooner

When thinking of African economies the time has come to think of tech innovation. Africa is making great technological strides, not only keeping up with the rest of the world but now providing serious competition in the global marketplace.

One area of innovation stands out in particular – apps.

These pieces of software are taking the continent, and world, by storm. In fact M-pesa, a mobile money transfer App first used in Kenya, is the most used app in the world, running 200 transactions per second.

African apps are built for the local market and are representative of the situation on the continent.

They can be accessed by a high number of individuals because many of them are based on mobile text messaging and not just web applications. This is useful on a continent that, according to the global mobile phone operators’ body, the GSM Association, is now second only to Asia in terms of mobile penetration, growing 20 per cent annually over the past five years.

One of the best examples is Tunisia, where almost 90 per cent of Tunisians have a mobile phone, and the market is shared between three mobile operators, two of which operate a 3G network.

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This environment is ideal for the proliferation of apps. Another encouraging sign is the high uptake of smartphones in various countries across the continent such as Egypt, Kenya and South Africa.

The smartphone, which is becoming increasingly affordable, has been a key tool in increasing the penetration of this technology.

The development of the apps themselves has been encouraged by affordable bandwidth, the entry of mobile advertising companies into Africa’s application developer market and investments by companies such as Google and Nokia who have spurred application development in sub-Saharan Africa. Examples of this include Nokia’s “Create for Millions” Series 40 Mobile apps contest, launched in Kenya, and Google’s App Inventor tool which lets anyone create an App for Android phones.

Developers are further encouraged by the significant revenue streams that App stores (such as Ovi Store, Android Market) promise. The stores have a set figure of 70 per cent, of the revenue generated by apps, going to the developer!

This is a vast improvement from the “deal” with African mobile operators who, according to Isabelle Gross’s Mobile apps for Africa: Strategies to make sense of free and paid apps (July 2011), take a minimum of 50 per cent of the revenue generated by SMS services.

The variety and ingenuity behind Africa’s apps is astounding, yet they do paint a vivid portrait of the grassroots of the African continent — offering solutions to the lack of services and infrastructure and situations of hardship.

The strong presence of non-governmental organisations is apparent in the cutting-edge mobile apps to solve African problems that have come out of East Africa in particular. Most of these apps got their funding from the social/development community.

Examples include the “iCow” app, an SMS-based mobile phone application specially developed for smalls-cale dairy farmers; “Maisha,” a child health App for expectant and first-time mothers and “Get H2O,” a game that allows users to negotiate issues of chronic water shortage.

The trend of the social benefit app has spread because of the organisations which fund it but it is important to acknowledge that it became entrenched because of the utilitarian motivations that drive many of the continent’s techies. Innovations come from the grassroots, from individuals who have experienced issues and now want to make a difference, which is why some apps aren’t even built to make money.

But it’s not all about social issues; African developers shake off this stereotype as they adopt apps as a key driver in the opening up of opportunities.

This trend is not region-specific but is most evident in countries where apps are more established such as South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Tunisia and Egypt.

In these countries, apps exist as convenience tools and for entertainment value. Once again, these can play to Africa stereotypes: “iWarrior” the game where you protect your village from wild animals; apps on African tribes and apps on African wildlife. Then there are apps which stand out from the crowd, created to cater for the minorities.

Examples include the “Out in Africa,” an app which caters for the South African Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and the “Bible society of Egypt” app.

There are countless apps that look to improve on the ease of business in Africa such as Google Trader, Soko, Kopo Kopo and many more. These apps act as classifieds, linking up potential business partners, assist in transactions or offer information. They boost development and promote business growth.

The most pronounced example of business growth, as a result of applications, is in South Africa — sub-Saharan Africa’s leader in app development.

This is because of its highly developed business sector, the diversity of its local market and its well-established IT sector.

South Africa’s Innovation Hub, established in Pretoria in 2002, was Africa’s first internationally accredited science and technology park.
Though South Africa continues to produce apps to assist where social services fail, such as the AfriDoctor, it also produces apps solely for entertainment value.

The DSTV app allows users to watch mobile television, the Stick Cricket app allows users to indulge in a batting game and “that roach game” is an app all about squashing cockroaches!

The appsphere is extremely diverse and ever-evolving according to Africa’s needs and wants. It has never been easier for African app developers and entrepreneurs to gain a global market for their services and products.

MobileMonday: In Dar es Salaam, about 70-80 young ICT entrepreneurs meet every first Monday of the month to discuss their ideas, new projects and trends in global markets.

They are part of a global open community MobileMonday which brings together industry visionaries, developers and influential individuals with the aim of fostering co-operation and cross-border business development through virtual and live networking events

Apps4Africa: Apps4Africa is a contest to highlight the talent of local developers in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania and to leverage the power of digital technology to make a better world.

The challenge is to build the best digital tools to address community challenges in areas ranging from healthcare to education and government transparency to election monitoring

Appfrica Labs: Based in Kampala, Uganda, this is part of AfriLabs, an independent foundation that represents a consortium of pan-African companies that have self-organised to form a fund for investment in African technology projects.

Appfrica is a software development firm that also facilitates, mentors and incubates entrepreneurs in software in East Africa.

M-lab: Kenya recently launched Africa’s first mobile apps lab, m-lab.

The facility is aimed at encouraging innovation in the East African country and is supported by the World Bank, Nokia and the government of Finland