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There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the ... [hover]
- Frank Herbert

Africa: the new new (new?) thing.

I have to admit it’s always exciting to see validation points for strongly held convictions. As you know I firmly believe that the confluence of technology and emerging – or in the new jargon more precisely ‘frontier’ – markets will generate significant and exciting new innovations and opportunities, and I remain convinced that fundamentally new and robust business models will emerge as a result. The fact that this might improve the human condition in some of the world’s heretofore least fortunate corners is of course icing on the proverbial cake. And so I was happy to read that Google, for example seems to share (at least some of my) sentiments on this:

We believe that the Internet is a transformational force for societies. And it’s making us all much more powerful as individuals, regardless of whether one is in New York, Stockholm, Bujumbura, Ouagadougou, or Cape Town. Regardless of background, education, social status, gender, age or economic situation, online access to information enables people to create opportunities for themselves. Seeing a student in a cybercafe doing his research using a search engine, a businessman chatting with a colleague abroad with instant messaging, or a young woman posting her photos to a social networking site – it’s clear the extent to which academic, business and social life is fundamentally changing all over Africa.”

At the same time, a couple of days ago, a very interesting article in the NYTimes also leant support to my thesis that the infrastructural constraints and challenging business environment of sub-Saharan Africa would engender innovative and resourceful approaches and a unique approach to harvesting the potential of information and communications technologies:

Still, Nairobi is home to a digital brew that invites optimism about its chances for creating unusual innovations. The city has relatively few wired phone lines or networked personal computers, so mobile phones are the essential digital tool. Four times as many people have them as have bank accounts. Text messages are far more popular than e-mail. Safaricom, the dominant mobile provider, offers a service called M-pesa that lets customers send money with text messages. Nokia sells brand-new phones here for as little as $33.

While engineers in the United States lavish attention on expensive phones that boast laptoplike features, in Kenya there are 10 million low-end phones. Millions more are used elsewhere in Africa. Enhancements to such basic phones can be experimented with cheaply in Nairobi, and because designers are weaned on narrow bandwidth, they are comfortable writing compact programs suited to puny devices.

“Applications are heavy in America,” says Michael Wakahe, a Nairobi code writer. “Here we have to make them light,” because simpler hardware requires smaller programs. These can have advantages in wireless systems…

…The prospect of marrying low-end mobile phones with the Internet is earning Nairobi notice from outsiders, who wonder whether the city might emerge as a test-bed for tomorrow’s technologies. One intriguing possibility is broadcasting local television programs on mobile phones.

In Nairobi’s highest-profile validation, Google opened a development office here last September. “Africa is a huge long-term market for us,” Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, said by e-mail. “We have to start by helping people get online, and the creativity of the people will take care of the rest.”

One of the most obvious – yet no less powerful or potentially transformational for it – themes is the combination of mobile communications, internet and geo-location technologies to disseminate information and increase connectedness from the bottom up. This emergent collective intelligence is all the more remarkable, given the typical history of entrenched ‘top-down’ politico-economic structures in place in these countries. Much of the early innovation is centered around information gathering and crisis management with tools like Ushahidi (quickly developed in response to the post-election political unrest in Kenya earlier this year) and FrontlineSMS being quickly adopted by citizens and NGOs and having an immediate positive impact on the ground. It doesn’t take much imagination to start dreaming up additional – more commercial – potential applications for these kinds of platforms. Ken Banks, the man behind FrontlineSMS describes his view as developing the ‘long-tail’ of mobile applications as the right approach for not-for-profit “social mobile”:

low-end, simple, appropriate mobile technology solutions which are easy to obtain, require as little technical expertise as possible, and are easy to copy and replicate. From my own experiences the number of NGOs present in this space is by far the greatest, making it the area to focus on if we want to create the highest amount of mobile-enabled social change. Add up all the value here, and it easily outweighs the rest along the higher (more lucrative) parts of the tail.

I would suggest that this approach might work equally well to enable commercial, for-profit, applications as well. Indeed on the other side of the continent you find Mark Davies esoko/TradeNet: Africa’s first mobile2mobile peer2peer trading platform and market information network:

…designed to provide the very latest agricultural market information to stakeholders. Accessed via SMS, fax, web, PDAs, farmers and traders can get daily price information, download video/audio files, access research documents, post buy/sell offers to the community, and contact other market participants. The concept is to make african markets more transparent and efficient, improve intra-regional trading, and provide stakeholders with enough recent and accurate information to make better decisions on bringing products to market and at what price.

I’m sure it won’t be easy or without enormous challenges but the opportunity is vast. Africa: it just might be the new new new thing.

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