Innovation is playing an increasingly important role in Africa’s ICT sector. One key area is the creation of ICT products tailored to the African market, crucial to the industry’s growth in the long term. Earlier in the year, Microsoft and Huawei came up with a phone specifically tailored to the African market. Features include a relatively low price tag at $150, a 420-hour standby-mode battery life and preloaded apps customised for African consumers.
The region is also emerging as a testing ground for state of the art solar-powered ICT products. The Canadian company WeWi Telecommunications Inc brought its solar-powered and water-resistant SOL Laptop to Ghana in August. Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria will be the first countries to stock the laptop, which will be priced around $300-$400.
Not long ago, a new solar-powered mobile phone also hit the market. Safaricom and Kenya’s Mobitelea Ventures teamed up to develop a phone aimed at rural Kenyans with limited electricity access. Its charger is powered completely by sunlight. The handset, priced at $18, is affordable for working-class Kenyans. Local content will also be an important area for innovation in the future.
Google has been a leading force in local content creation. It has launched several Google products in African languages from Zulu to Swahili. The company has also made a push at the grassroots in several African countries to encourage the uploading of local information onto Google Maps. The internet giant is keen to encourage the uploading of African content to YouTube too. In August, it launched the YouTube Partner Programme in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and Senegal, which gives participants the chance to make money from their videos.
African online businesses are also helping to drive local content. iROKOtv allows Africans and the African diaspora to view African films online. Some mobile apps are also a boost for local content creation. For example, South Africa’s Snapplify, has developed platforms for African publishers to showcase works. Samsung has introduced a number of cutting-edge Africacentric apps. These include The Kleek, a mobile music platform featuring African music and music news. Another is eKitabu, a Kenyan book browsing platform, through which customers can buy African books and pay for them using M-Pesa.
E-learning is another area of innovation. According to Luke Ambrose at Insight, the e-learning sector should grow by more than 15% in 16 African countries between 2011 and 2016. In some countries, growth will be extremely sharp – for example, in Senegal the annual expansion rate could be as high as 30%. Revenue is also increasing – from just over $250m in 2011 to more than half a million dollars in 2016.
Moreover, e-learning heralds new opportunities in a wide range of sectors, argues Rebecca Stromeyer, the founder of eLearning Africa: “We must understand e-learning as being far more than just computers in classrooms but as something that continues far beyond school grounds,” says Stromeyer, “into sectors that are integral to local economic development, such as health, agriculture and tourism, with encouraging results.”
This has thrown up new opportunities for entrepreneurs. An example is a massive open online course (MOOC) focusing on management, which has been launched by the African Management Initiative (AMI).
“Why online? Because a lot of the traditional management schools in Africa are expensive and highly academic,” says Rebecca Harrison, a programme director at AMI, who also points out that only 5% of Africa’s 10-15m managers are enrolled in management courses.
The MOOC has experienced impressive success: 850 people signed up for its pilot course and 99% said that they would like to do another, she says. “It’s a no-brainer. There is a huge demand for business education in Africa, and you couple that with rising levels of internet penetration.”
But for e-learning to really take off, African countries need to oversee a number of key changes. “It is absolutely crucial to have open communication and collaboration between government ministries,” says Stromeyer from eLearning Africa. “Increased international cooperation is also needed: the internet and mobile communications are bypassing the limitations posed by national borders, and governments must keep up with the pace of change.”
Technology innovation hubs are springing up across Africa. Such hubs function as a place for the local tech community to meet and collaborate. These hubs also play an important role as an incubation space.
Afrilabs has a network of 20 labs across the continent. IBM Research is also to open a new lab in Kenya. It says “IBM Research – Africa will work on next-generation public sector solutions.” The hub’s two main focus areas will be water management and transport. “Using multiple data sources, analytics and models, IBM Research will develop a complete understanding of Kenya’s water system and optimise the use, storage, safety and distribution of the country’s water supply.”
The use of predictive analytics also has the potential to solve traffic congestion in Nairobi by using real-time insights to model and anticipate traffic jams. IBM’s recent global Computer Pain Survey of 15 cities ranked Nairobi as the fourth-most-congested in the world. IBM Research is also planning to open an innovation hub in Nigeria in 2014.