Saturday, December 26, 2015

Africa’s Apps Built for African Challenges
On a continent where very few have credit cards, but many have smartphones, apps like Uber are useless. But there’s a burgeoning group of tech geeks who are designing apps made especially for Africans.

Photo: Bacely Yorobi runs a coding workshop in France. "Lots of young Africans who've studies elsewhere and returned home have expectations of mobile services that don't yet exist," he says.

By Marco Chown Oved Staff Reporter,
Published on Sat Dec 26 2015

Not sure if that medication is counterfeit? Concerned that your taxi driver looks sketchy? Want to order something online but don’t have a credit card?

There’s an app for that.

Smartphones are becoming ubiquitous around the world, and in sub-Saharan Africa they’re being used to solve a host of uniquely local quandaries.

In shantytowns where the streets have no names and the buildings no numbers, using a GPS-enabled phone to drop a pin saves countless stops for directions.

When most people are living on several dollars a day, calling is often too expensive and even text messages add up, so data messaging is becoming king and developers are figuring out ways to have them use the least amount of data possible.

And for illiterate people, voice-recognition technology is being developed to turn a spoken message into a text, in just about any local language.

According to the Pew Research Center, cellphones are as common in some African countries as they are in the United States, with about 89 per cent of people owning one, but smartphones still lag way behind. Even in South Africa, the richest and most tech-savvy country south of the Sahara, only about 34 per cent of cellphone users have one, compared to 64 per cent in the U.S.

As more low-cost Chinese-made models hit the market, however, their use is growing rapidly.

“They will reach similar market penetration, but the question is how quickly?” said Levi Goertz, chief operating officer with Toronto-based Voto Mobile, which develops interactive cellphone technology for use in developing countries.

The urban middle class is adopting smartphones much more rapidly than the rural poor, said Goertz, who still focuses much of his work on “common,” or regular, phones.

“Most NGOs work with lower-income people, but smartphone solutions are around the corner . . . More developers are coming onto the scene; there seems to be a new company every quarter,” he said.

Because the African market is smaller and less prosperous, it has largely been overlooked by large app developers, leaving the industry to be dominated by local startups.

“Lots of young Africans who’ve studied elsewhere and returned home have expectations of mobile services that don’t yet exist,” said Bacely Yorobi, an app developer from Ivory Coast. “So they’re the ones coding and putting new African-made apps out there.”

Some are simply imitations of popular services available in Europe or North America and remade for mobile platforms because so few people have access to computers.

There’s Jumia, a Craig’s List-like marketplace of classified ads optimized for mobile phones. There’s also Iroko TV, which, like Netflix, streams African-made movies and TV shows, only to your hand-held device.

But other apps confront public health and economic issues by allowing people to carry around their own medical records and giving those without bank accounts electronic payment solutions.

“Africans don’t like to put their money in the bank, but they will put it in their phone,” said Yorobi.
M-Pesa, an electronic wallet linked to your phone number, was developed more than a decade ago in Kenya, and allows people to pay for services or send money to family members with a simple text message. Now apps are being developed for business owners that convert M-Pesa payments into cash and send them to your business bank account.

Because smartphone usage is still confined to a small part of the population, it tends to be overlooked by both governments and investors. Most new apps come out of workshops and competitions hosted by cellphone companies. And even the proven coders who emerge from these events victorious are turning elsewhere for funding.

“We have everything we need to build an app, but we don’t have the support to bring it to market,” said Yorobi, during a trip to Paris to court investors.

“People make an app for Africans — that’s great — but we don’t think about making something for the wider world. We need to think bigger.”

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