Day Two at the World Economic Forum on Africa

How do information and communication technologies influence innovation in Africa? Robert Fabricant’s third report from the World Economic Forum.


The second day of the World Economic Forum on Africa was packed, with one head of state after another marching through with their entourage. The big showdown was Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe’s appearance on a panel with Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s current prime minister, to discuss Zimbabwe’s future. Everyone was eager to see if he would put on a show–and he did. You can read plenty of coverage in the mainstream press.

In between the headlines I wove together my core topics–information and communication technologies (or ICT), health care, and social entrepreneurship–in sessions that ranged from high-level talking heads to intimate working groups to impromptu hallway meet-ups. The day began with an ICT on the social benefits of mobile technology from the perspective of the established players (such as Vodacom Tanzania, one of the dominant carriers here and throughout Africa). Each of the panelists had their pet project or pilot to talk about to establish their cred in corporate social responsibility and social impact. Certainly nice to see that they are participating in, and in a few cases leading, efforts to leverage their networks to address health, agriculture and other development issues. Not sure if you could say the same from their U.S. counterparts. Yet these corporations are making significant money serving impoverished customers (who spend upwards of 25% of their income on mobile services). While it was great to hear about pilot programs like SMS for Life out of Tanzania, the speakers generally dodged the big questions:


  • Can information and communication innovation and mobile services improve livelihoods in rural areas and stem the migration to large urban centers, particularly among youth? South Africa’s official unemployment rate recently passed 25% with unofficial rates much higher–double or triple in some communities with young people hardest hit. As many have noted, in 2020, Africa will account for 60% of youth globally. So Africa is facing a huge demographic challenge: The combination of growing unemployment among youth, mass migration to urban areas, and widespread violence. These could all easily swamp any hopes for meaningful economic development.
  • Can ICT address the gender imbalance in mobile access? One panelist ridiculously offered a case of the finest wine from Stellenbosch to anyone who can explain why mobile use among women is so much lower than men. See the description of MoVirtu below for one promising innovation that may address this imbalance.
  • And, most importantly, from my perspective, how can innovations that have measurable impact in one country spread more quickly and easily to others through big African mobile carrier networks, like MTN, Vodacom, Zain?

While the panelists tried to stay on topic, there was a definite split between discussion of the overall economic benefits of increasing access to mobile services and discussion of specific corporate social responsibility-style initiatives that have direct social impact goals. For many speakers, the former is a more comfortable place, as building their businesses and increasing the market for mobile services (particularly financial services) is viewed as an inherent social good–no matter how much money they may make in the process.  

Kenya: The Silicon Valley of Banking?
With that perspective in mind, the conversation turned again and again to M-Pesa and the growing revolution in mobile banking in Africa. A number of speakers predicted that, given the success of M-Pesa, Nairobi will emerge as the next tech hub on the continent, competing with South Africa. One speaker even referred to Kenya as the “Silicon Valley of Banking” adding that “100 countries in the world are looking at Kenya” to learn about the future of a cashless economy. Make no mistake, this is a huge potential market. There are an estimated 1.7 billion people globally who have access to mobile phones but no current banking services. Africa is adding 35,000 new mobile banking customers a day, most of whom have never banked before. The trick is to reduce the on-boarding costs, which are around $10 per banking customer. One company trying to do this is OboPay, a mobile transaction service based in the U.S. that operates on three continents–North America, Africa, India–and partners with local financial institutions to roll out their services. OboPay won the tech pioneer award at Davos last year. 


Ghana: The Silicon Valley of Medicine?
The next, great mobile innovation to come from Africa may be in medicine. This time the poster child will be Ghana, which has mobilized government and industry to support m-Pedigree, a mobile service that allows people to verify the validity of their medicines through a special short code and ID printed on each package. This may not seem like a critical service to readers in developed markets. But one study has shown that over 40% of the medicines in pharmacies in Lagos are counterfeit, with similar issues in India, China, and many of the other large economies that are driving global economic growth.

Given the desperate need and high cost of medical care, the social impact of this issue should not be underestimated. While there are a number of initiatives looking at this problem (including the folks at pharmasecure, another Frog partner), m-Pedigree is the only program that I am aware of on a national scale. Based on the success of the current program, leaders are working with large pharmaceutical companies to institute a worldwide ID program for pharmaceuticals. The trickle-up potential is enormous here as with M-Pesa. While we don’t have a similar issues with counterfeits, imagine if you could text in a simple code and receive reminders to take your medicine? Or get information on potential interactions with other medicines that you might be taking?  


The Power of Anonymity
Mobile operators are critical partners for all of these programs, and deserve credit for their support. But in most cases they bring little added value to the service, providing access, supplying shortcodes and sometimes discounts on data rates. While mobile networks are a critical link to information for the rural poor, there is often a service layer missing to help people truly benefit. Someone else needs to aggregate relevant information in a useful way, match that information to local needs, and provide an escalation path, particularly in times of crisis when SMS is not enough and voice is required. 

It was great to see a new player emerge in this space at the conference–call center operators. Nik Nesbitt, the CEO of KenCall, has pioneered the call center industry in Africa and is seeing the potential to address this opportunity head-on. We had a few minutes to chat about his experience partnering with government, NGOs, and other players to support the drought in Kenya through his call center staff. And he expressed a strong desire to explore innovative partnership models with his commercial customers to make these services sustainable on an ongoing basis.


In his remarks, he also reflected on the “power of anonymity.” His call center staff have found that people are much more likely to share information with a call center representative than they are with an aid or government worker asking them questions directly. This matches our own experience on Project Masiluleke with young men in South Africa, who resent the lack of privacy in health clinics and expressed a strong preference for mobile counseling when offered the choice in our tests. 

The Next Wave
Finally, the discussion turned from access to accessibility, with panelists offering their point of view on the next revolution in communication devices (here and around the world). Some focused on the immediate future, and the need for devices to get cheaper and cheaper to reach the base of the market. That is certainly the biggest barrier or opportunity for the operators as they try to get a phone in everyone’s hands.

Others emphasized the need to rethink the phone entirely through innovations that get past current input conventions (small keyboards and screens) through voice and gesture technology, pointing to the frequently cited example of Sixth Sense from MIT. These technologies have the opportunity to truly revolutionize people’s ability to communicate across the world, not just access text-based information.


But the answer may not be in the device at all. I am confident that the mobile world will soon move away from a hardware model to a network-based model, in which all of one’s personal information is accessible from the cloud on many different devices. This wave of innovation may be driven by Africa as well, through services like MoVirtu, a Frog partner recently nominated for a Mobile User Experience award. As Africa adopts a cashless, mobile-network centric model of banking, it will make less and less sense to have your M-Pesa account tied to a phone number.

The Smartphone Economy
In the meantime, a device revolution is brewing in Africa as smartphones take off. The evidence was all around me: Not just in the conference center with African business leaders, but out on the streets of Dar. And manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM) seems to be the clear winner so far. Their products are promoted everywhere and have become the device of choice with affluent, metropolitan Africans. BlackBerrys have become status symbols throughout Dar, Nairobi, and Johannesburg. BlackBerry ads have even taken over the immigration desks at the national airport in Dar Es Salaam. Nokia better watch out! As phones become the primary link to critical services (not just communication but health and financial management), smartphones will become the device of choice for more and more Africans.


It will be hard for Nokia to maintain their image in Africa as the gold standard for devices once the top tier of society switches over to RIM. Nokia has already lost the smartphone ware in developed markets. They can’t afford to lose it here as well.

Read Robert’s report from Day One at WEF Africa

Robert Fabricant’s Design4Impact blog


blogs by our other Expert


Robert Fabricant is a leader of frog’s
health-care expert group, a
cross-disciplinary global team that works collectively to share best
practices and build frog’s health-care capabilities. An expert in
design for social innovation, Robert recently led Project Masiluleke,
an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat
the world’s worst HIV and AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
Robert is an adjunct professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts
where he teaches a foundation course in Interaction Design. In 2009, he
joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York and is a
faculty member of the Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellowship Program. A
regular speaker at conferences and events, Robert recently gave a
keynote speech at the 2009 IxDA Interaction Conference. He is a
frequent contributor to a wide variety of publications, including

I.D. Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.


About the author

Robert Fabricant has been working at the forefront of user-friendly design for more than 25 years for organizations like Microsoft and Frog. He is the cofounder of Dalberg Design, a unique practice focused on social impact with design teams in London, Mumbai, Nairobi, and New York, and a finalist for Fast Company’s World-Changing Company of the Year


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