Africa has always lacked in land-line phone infrastructure. Lack of access to reliable grid power and few national and international phone lines mean that landline penetration has always remained near zero – A Pew Research study from 2014 across seven Sub-Saharan African countries (Senegal, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and Uganda) showed that only an average of 2% of homes have a fixed-line phone.
Until the 2000s, this meant a lack of quick communication. However it has proven an asset today, as Africa is skipping the landline phase and diving into the digital revolution faster than anywhere else. Internet penetration is at 26% across all of Africa, which is still low – however, solutions are being developed.
In some countries, services that generally require internet access – such as banking or money transfers – are being recalibrated to use text messaging. In other parts of the continent, satellite internet and cellphone is being developed, by multinational companies and entrepreneurs. These programs include the development of “low-cost” satellites with a price tag of as little as USD 500,000 per unit, or Google’s Loon project, balloon-based Internet transmitters geared towards connecting low-infrastructure areas. Other projects include the O3B Networks, Virgin’s Oneweb project and Facebook’s solar-powered internet drones. These low-cost solutions will also mean cheaper access to the service, thus allowing local operators to develop affordable customer-facing solutions. Technological development is also set to change the local market, creating multiple start-ups and homebrewed companies. The estimation of industry experts is that Africa will be fully connected within 15 years.
While full Internet access is still being developed, cellphone coverage is almost complete today. In that case, the industry most likely to profit from the mobile revolution is one that’s already made much progress in providing tailor-made solutions in Africa: Personal finance. The most riveting success story is that of M-Pesa, a pioneer of mobile finance developed by Vodafone and Safaricom in Kenya in 2007. M-Pesa is the local answer to a local problem – the fact that Africans have quicker and easier access to mobile phones than to banking services. M-Pesa or similar services are now available in 40 African countries, over 75 operators. In Tanzania, mobile phone operators have agreed to allow payments across different operators’ mobile accounts, creating the first interbanking system for mobile finance.
Similarly, mobile credit services such as M-Shwari (Kenya) and M-Pawa (Tanzania) or Airtel’s “3 for Free” mobile insurance policy (Ghana) have grown exponentially, following the success of mobile payment services. While mobile finance is still the leader in the development of new, specialized services for Africa, other sectors will catch up in the coming years, such as mPedigree’s cellphone-accessed database serving to detect counterfeit medicine.
So what does this mean for African talent? Beyond the blooming startup scene that will take advantage of the newly-created industry, which will afford unseen opportunities for African entrepreneurs, the development of new mobile and Internet services means the industry will need a very specific brand of engineers: Software programmers. Major companies have taken notice of that need and are stepping in to fill it: SAP has launched the Africa Code Week program, a succession of workshops in the schools of eleven African countries, to help spark an interest in programming for the next generation of talent and boost local tech start-ups. Companies such as US-based Andela are also investing in talent, principally in Nigeria, by funding and offering money to locals to take courses in software programming.
Africa’s mobile communications market will give the industries there entirely different targets, technology and objectives compared to similar companies in Europe, Japan or North America, which don’t have the same interest in mobile technology. Africa is once more set to differentiate itself from the rest of the world, and make its own progress into unexplored technological and human development.