Why is Africa Surprising You? Surprising Africa @ Picnic ’08

By: Ben White
On: September 28, 2008
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About Ben White
I am a media professional with several years of international experience. I have worked on media projects in Europe, Central/Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I have a particular interest in the rise of internet and mobile tehnologies in emerging markets. This interest is an important part of my master's program at the University of Amsterdam.


Picnic is Amsterdam’s new media event of the year. This is one of the few times when people come together to discuss developments, innovations and changes in the industry on this scale. As a result, this is also one of the few events that attracts an international audience..

For the most part, the event focuses on the Internet and mobile cultures already established in Europe and N. America. But this year that changed with the launch of Surprising Africa.

We read about the mobile phone revolution, the fast growing economic markets and the emerging multinationals springing up across the continent. We see the images of vast Lagos and Nairobi; incredible traffic jams and busy markets. We see farmers using their mobile to contact information centers and hear about the success of mobile banking. These stories and images spark our curiosity and it seems the wider public is eager to know more. What is this Africa and what is going on there?

Surprising Africa, served as a symposium for the unexpected. The event was a showcase of the individuals and organizations that are doing things that might surprise the person unfamiliar with the region and its developments. From web loggers fighting to bring about social change to laptops beings used to educate children on HIV prevention, the event was a strong example of the diversity seen across the sector. From a one man architect working to change the way African’s think about their own communities to Google who is investing in satellites and launching mobile search platforms in a multitude of local languages, it is clear that something is happening. The range of people and organizations interested in the subject is a good indication of the possibilities.

Eric Hersman a.k.a. the White African, outlined some of the developments. For example, Africa already has 280,700,000 mobile subscribers. This represents a 30 % penetration rate in what is still the world’s fastest growing mobile phone market. More interestingly, 95% of the phones are pre-paid and he reminds us that most are simple text messaging tools when compared to the modern 3G handsets. Still it is clear that the mobile phone is the emerging platform for the continent.

Erik then went on to profile some of the interesting projects in this space:

Mobile Payment – Mpesa, Wizzit and Celpay are examples of emerging mobile payment systems. Different from banks, these platforms allow uses to send and receive money via mobile phone. These platforms have been an enormous success and there is already a lot of interest in introducing similar services in other countries.

Africa Interactive – A project that uses mobile phones as a reporting tool. African journalist, photographers and filmmakers use their mobile phone to collect text, photo and video. The content is then uploaded to the website AfricaNews.com.

Ushahidi – An open source project that looks to connect people on the street during times of crisis. Users can use their mobile phone to report incidences of violence that can be tracked and monitored by the community. The project could be applied to a number of other crisis like situations i.e. hurricane or tsunami

Pedigree – A drug verification system that offers the consumers access to data and background information. A unique tools that makes use of mobile.

Tradenet – An online platform for buying and selling. Based in West Africa, Tradenet is an emerging platform for the Agricultural sector and a possible model for other areas of Africa.

Erik believes that some of the most interesting developments are now seen on the streets of Nairobi. Africa is starting to produce its own community of programmers. These individuals are building all sorts of applications for the mobile phone. These local developers bring an invaluable insight into local problems and challenges. It is also clear that these developers are as good if not better then what we see in other parts of the world. Some of the more interesting applications include a monitoring tool for the Nigerian StockMarket and an auto anti-theft device.

Given these developments in the mobile space, it becomes clear that the design of the phone can play an important role in this process. Younghee Jung, the lead designer for Nokia, profiled the designs made by local users. For example, a mobile phone with four sim cards (it is cheaper to use multiple sim cards and to change them in and out depending on the local network), a flashlight for finding your way in the dark, or an audible text reader for helping illiterate users decipher text messages they cannot read. More importantly, she mentions that these tools need to cost less then 5 US dollars if they are to remain accessible to the general consumer.

One of the key areas of focus remains mobile payment systems. A good example is Mpesa in Kenya. Andy Chung walked us through the platform and its developments. Needless to say Mpesa has grown from 19,946 users in March 2007 to 2,700,000 users in May 2008. The service has been oversubscribed several times and the organization is working to keep up. The amazing success clearly shows the need and demand for these kinds of services.

Moving forward, Ethan Zuckerman (Global Voices) did a fine job outlining four of the major challenges. Instead of the digital divide (often used as a term for explaining the technological difference between Africa and Europe/N.America) we are actually dealing with 4 key issues that are part of the same challenge.

Power Divide – Africa is a dark continent when seen from a world map. Many parts of the continent lack good infrastructure and access to power remains a challenge.

Connectivity Divide – Only recently was the continent connected by fiber optic cable, and then only the western seaboard. This situation is set to improve with two additional cables on the eastern seaboard. Google’s investment in low orbiting satellites should help too. However, connectivity remains an issue. There is a lot of work to be done in this area.

Language Divide – The continent boasts a population of nearly one billion people. Needless to say there is an incredible diversity of people and culture. For example there are 11 official languages in South Africa alone.

Relevance Divide – Technology, tools and content interesting to a western audience might not have the same relevance to someone living near Arusha, Tanzania. In these places someone might be more interested in where he can sell his crops, which market is offering the best price, than watching the funniest videos loaded to YouTube. A different context will require a different approach and different tools if it is to be useful.

Despite these challenges, there is an incredible opportunity for mobile and Internet in Africa. There is an incredible need for the right services and the potential is clear. There is a lot happening and this is a good time to learn from one another. I think Mr. Kwani Binyavang Wainaina explained it best. “Everyone is looking for coherence in a complex world. I can’t tell you that we will become Switzerland by 2040. But I do believe we all have something to learn by watching. There is a wisdom to be found in Africa.”

You can see the agenda: Picnic 08 – Surprising Africa

See some photos: Flickr Photo Page

See an overview on Twitter: Picnic 08

See other reviews of the event: White African / Ali Balunywa



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