While mobile banking remains the big story, there are plenty of other things happening on the continent that unlock the potential of mobile services for communities.
What has been remarkable about the roll out and adoption of mobile banking in Africa is its uptake, especially compared to developed countries where adoption has been much lower and usually only driven by convenience.
In Africa, it is need, not convenience, that drives adoption and there are plenty of mobile applications that have resulted from this. Some are literally world-leading examples of using available technology to solve problems and meet consumer demand and user needs, rather than looking for a new technology that might be practically and financially unobtainable.
Following in the footsteps of the general success of mobile banking and beyond what most people would regard as proper banking and financial services, there are a number of transactional offerings that are still primarily concerned with the movement of funds as a service, rather than as just a necessary part of a purchase.
One example is the specialist service Wizzit from South Africa, which is a branchless mobile/internet banking business. Wizzit has partnered with ABSA bank, one of that country's four major banks, and the banking division of the South African Post Office but its primary focus is on providing banking by mobile phone. This includes having a debit card and covers a full range of services available to a cash or savings account customer. The key point is that it can all be done by mobile phone, using even a basic 2G handset.
A comparable service is Oltio, whose payD application was nominated for an MWC award. The application enables people to make online purchases who do not have a credit card. This is a major bottleneck for online transactions in Africa, where debit cards are not often accepted online. The payD system bridges the gap by using a debit card, with PIN verification from a mobile phone. That creates purchasing opportunities for a large number of people who have money to spend but not the full range of banking services that includes a credit card.
Perhaps at the other end of the financial services scale is M-Pesa, which operates in the Great Lakes region. This was a microfinance service that used mobile phone channels for transactions. The widely adopted M-Pesa application now also supports basic banking services and payments, having evolved to meet consumer demand.
Then there are a slew of industry-specific services such as Slimtrader, developed in Seattle but deployed in Nigeria to make buying transport passenger tickets by phone quick and easy. On a less commercial level, there are mobile phone systems for identifying fake medicines running in both East and West Africa, showing some success in combating the huge fake drugs market.
The signposts are there for anyone to read. Reports are that there is a 21 percent increase in African use of mobile phones for purchasing - higher than any other region in the world. While the survey in question found that increasing smartphone adoption is a factor, the telling figure is that feature phone users are the largest part of the growing market. What is really revealing is that African consumers prefer using their phones over any other method: 46 percent buying via mobile versus 10 percent online via computer and only 44 percent buying in-store. Some 60 percent report buying at least one product online via mobile phone.
Figures quoted by Nokia support the view that commerce in Africa is dependent on mobile. The company reports that micro-entrepreneurship covers some 90 percent of the employment base and about 65 percent of the continental GDP. Mobile phone applications are a key factor in supporting this economic activity.
The other signpost that cannot be missed is a survey from East Africa.
In Kenya, 64 percent of users listen to digital music via mobile phones while 24 percent access via computer; 45 percent prefer to chat via mobile and 25 percent use computers. In Uganda, the figures are 48 percent listen to music via mobile versus 26 percent and 40 percent chat via mobile compared to 23 percent.
While consumer demand typically moves in the direction of entertainment, it should not be forgotten that there are other services that are just as well delivered by mobile phone: news (especially weather and farming information), education and even remote healthcare and medical services.
Education is a primary concern. It is an obvious enabler of social and economic empowerment and Africa is generally a region where skills are hard to acquire or find. As global studies show, much of the success in higher skills starts with the very basic 'three Rs' at primary level. But in South Africa, one of the better equipped countries on the continent, only some seven percent of schools have an adequate library and only about 10 percent have sufficient online access and desktops for staff and pupils to use. Hence a recent initiative by MNO Vodacom to provide a cloud computing solution to fill in the gap in educational resources.
Elsewhere, there are pioneering programmes to provide mobile phone access for educational programmes running in East and West Africa. Nokia has a system running in Tanzania that allows teachers to download content using smartphones for TV display in the classroom. There are similar initiatives in a number of other countries.
Probably the most famous African application is Ushahidi. The name means 'bearing witness' in Swahili and the app was developed in Kenya to report and map the post-election violence in the country back in 2008. It works by updates from mobile phone users to a website where the information is then integrated with Google Maps. It works so well that is has since been deployed for emergency service support in regions affected by natural disasters, including Haiti and China.
While such high-profile applications hold the spotlight and even lead some commentators to ask whether Africa might become the first post-PC region of the world, it should not be forgotten that mobile phones are providing an essential service across the continent in much simpler ways. These include updating farmers on seasonal and weather information and updating healthcare workers and patients about disease outbreaks and treatment options.
The real story of applications in Africa remains how innovation has met essential needs with available technology - and what a vast difference that has made in the lives of ordinary people.
Date of Publication: 8 June 2012