Africa as a Hotbed for Innovation: Technology Providing New Ways to Look at Age-Old Problems
Editor’s note: Throughout 2017, NextBillion is organizing content around a monthly theme, dedicating special attention to a specific sector alongside our broader coverage. This post is part of our focus on technology for the month of May.
Imagine a future where Africa’s youth can explore job opportunities in real time on their mobile phone; a future where farmers can optimize agricultural inputs as a result of granular data insights provided by sensor technology predicting a crop’s needs; a future where getting a loan decision for the continent’s startups and micro-entrepreneurs takes seconds, not weeks, thanks to big data and artificial intelligence; a future where development aid and social transfers are made directly into beneficiaries’ accounts, without intermediaries, enabled by blockchain. This future is already here, with innovators across the continent working on Africa’s tomorrow. Among the pioneers is Zipline, leveraging drone technology in Rwanda and changing the way we think about last-mile health care delivery. Kenya-based Sopiebot uses artificial intelligence to answer sexual health questions. Innovators like these demonstrate how technology can disrupt the way we think about problem solving.
new approaches to age-old problems
The African continent offers an innovation hotbed, enabling whole new industries and systems not constrained by the path dependency of “legacy systems” that hamper breakthrough disruption in many places in the Global North. Emerging technologies like the internet of things (IoT), robotics, 3D printing, blockchain and artificial intelligence have the potential to act as impact amplifiers and challenge traditional approaches of addressing age-old problems in sectors such as agriculture, financial services, health care, education, energy and water. Time is now ripe for the African continent to embark on a growth journey driven by innovation and entrepreneurship.
Intellecap’s latest research, “Imagine Africa 2030: Technologies that will shape Africa’s tomorrow,” explores how emerging technologies can amplify impact creation and trigger a set of big shifts. We share our vision of how innovators and enterprises in Africa can leverage these big shifts to help address the continent’s mega-challenges over the next decade. The report identifies key innovation whitespaces for Africa’s existing and startup entrepreneurs to capitalize on and a set of opportunities for key stakeholders to help nurture a high-impact technology innovation ecosystem for these enterprises to flourish. The micro-site provides a range of related material on the potential of emerging technologies and will serve as a knowledge hub on emerging technologies for impact as well as a depository of use cases.
Amplifying impact through five major levers
The new research shows that technology-based innovations can act as impact amplifiers through five major levers: They have the potential to provide access to basic services at higher speed; allow generation of deep insights for better decision-making; allow customization and better targeting of base of the pyramid consumers; democratize access; and, hence, can lead to full system changes.
Nigeria-based startup Hello Tractor, for example, leverages IoT to increase speed of service delivery and provide farmers with the opportunity to rent a tractor on demand, while Kenya-based Azuri uses an AI-based power management system to generate deep insights and understand power usage patterns of customers and adjusts the brightness of lights to meet their requirements. Kenya-based UjuziKilimo uses a sensor-based analytical system to measure soil characteristics to help farmers understand soil quality on their respective farms and provide customized solutions. Platform solutions like ISikCure allow democratization of access to quality, safe medicine for all, leveraging big data. Through a combination of forces, emerging technologies can disrupt whole industries and trigger system change. Think of how 3D printing may disrupt the pharmaceutical industry, allowing patients to print their drugs at home, at the quantities they need and when they need them.
Addressing typical barriers in low-income markets
Around the world, technology pioneers, experts, engineers and nerds are working on innovations that can be applied in Africa, helping the continent leapfrog. Intellecap’s research highlights 30 such example use cases, illustrating how emerging technologies can address typical challenges in low-income markets such as productivity, affordability, motivation, quality, reach, viability and scalability. Mapping these innovations against a set of deployment dependencies – including policy and regulatory environment, need for infrastructure, required financial and human capital, and degree of required behavioral change – shows that action is required today if we want to change systems tomorrow. The backbone of all emerging technology innovations are advances in providing connectivity, but we are optimistic that the next few years will see innovations like mesh networks or satellite-based solutions addressing the connectivity challenge.
Triggering big shifts to help Africa leapfrog
We predict five major shifts that emerging technologies can trigger on the continent, and we already begin to see this change emerging. Here, we’ll highlight one of the shifts, from digital divide to digital bridges:
- Closing the infrastructure divide – democratizing connectivity: In coming years, technologies will allow us to democratize connectivity, access to technology and capabilities. In the short run, small-scale, off-grid solar power systems such as the one developed by BuffaloGrid have great potential to leapfrog the need for grid expansion by providing off-grid internet access, using solar power. Kenya-based BRCK provides a hardware solution that facilitates connectivity in remote settings. Across the globe, startups are beginning to create decentralized solutions that can cut out middlemen and allow peer-to-peer connectivity, matchmaking between end users and connectivity providers, and selling of access internet capacity. In the medium to long term, aerial infrastructure innovations and drone-based internet such as Google’s Project Loon, Facebook’s Internet.org and SpaceX are solutions in process to bridge the connectivity gap. Expected to be commercialized later this year, Project Loon provides internet through a network of high-altitude balloons. Each balloon provides internet coverage to an area 80 kilometers in diameter. Innovators like goTenna Mesh, Tuse and Village Telco have started to provide connectivity using mesh networks, which have the potential to offer a more secure and stable network connection. Such technology innovations paired with government action will boost connectivity at affordable prices.
- Closing the user divide – democratizing information and opportunities: With the spread of connectivity, using digital technology is no longer a privilege of the “top of the pyramid” but increasingly has a value proposition for Africa’s base of the pyramid. Today, the usage of mobile phones to access information and basic services is higher in low-income segments than in top-tier segments of society – and this success story can be repeated. In the short term, bots will replace the need for an abstract user interface and provide a natural means of communication. Chatbots are enabling communication with technology and reducing the barrier to usage, especially when it comes to providing support in native languages. SMS-based bots such as Agri8 in Kenya use machine learning principles to make it easier for farmers to access and navigate agricultural information platforms. Emerging technologies such as AI will act as enablers in the backend, providing the information, opportunities or services that people need; financial products, water, energy, education, health care services or information, for example, in areas such as agriculture or climate. In the medium to long term, emerging technologies and smarter devices will allow us to make high tech truly inclusive for base of the pyramid consumers. Conversational applications enabled through AI will enable consumers to do basically anything with the help of tech, while not relying on high-tech skills or literacy. Technology will enable users to communicate directly with computers without the need for a screen. Multimodal communication leveraging eye-tracking, gestures or voice technology will help overcome the literacy challenge.
- Closing the skill divide – democratizing capabilities: Given the speed at which technology develops, adaptability and skill development matter in order to prevent the development of a two-tiered society of tech-savvy users and excluded non-users. To prepare for the change, Africans can take advantage of new forms of learning and skill building. In the medium to long term, an increasing number of products and services will be digitized, demonetized and democratized – increasingly removing the intermediary and shifting responsibility to the individual. With this new empowerment, there is a need to prepare the individual. Learnability, problem solving and ability to interpret information are key in the new age, where data and knowledge are easily accessible. Just as emerging technologies enable access, they enable skilling and provision of need-based, customized and contextual training delivered through videos, text, games and other mediums, independent of centralized educational institutions. While MOOC-enabled distance education has been around for some time, the near-term future lies in a combination of “education on your fingertips” through formats such as nanodegrees and other “just in time interventions.” In the medium to long term, more engaging virtual reality-enabled classroom education will prepare Africans to solve local problems independent of their location. The locational barrier is already being overcome by companies like Unimersiv, zSpace and nearpod. In the long run, emerging technologies will help create a future-ready generation that bridges the digital divide through skills acquired remotely.
Africa’s innovation journey has begun, but collective action is needed
Through a mapping of 100 technology use cases in Africa against the development challenges and the impact amplification framework, our research identifies certain key innovation whitespaces for African entrepreneurs to focus on. We also identify a set of opportunities for key stakeholders such as governments, regulators, donors, investors and corporates to help create and nurture a high-impact technology innovation ecosystem which will support African innovators and entrepreneurs to fill these whitespaces. These opportunities include new forms of collaborations, facilitating test-beds to hasten prototyping and learning, channelizing risk-oriented innovation capital, establishing open-source knowledge infrastructure, cyber-security mechanisms and promoting technology convergence. It is our collective responsibility to create this innovation ecosystem and accelerate the speed at which we can make these innovations achieve impacts at scale.
Photo: A young African Xhosa man in his vegetable garden, referencing information on his tablet. Courtesy of Intellecap