Africans Dial Up Innovation

No longer content to import technology, Africans are using cellphones to spur indigenous innovation

3 min read

Herman Chinery-Hesse.
Herman Chinery-Hesse.
Photo: Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

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Tired of hearing friends in Accra, Ghana, fret over the specter of home invasions, Herman Chinery-Hesse launched a text-messaging security service earlier this year that both addresses the problem of poor police response to property crimes and takes advantage of tight-knit neighborhoods.

If a house comes under attack, the owner and family members can sound an alarm from any of five mobile phones. The server automatically calls a private security service in the area—as well as up to 10 neighbors selected by the customer. Chinery-Hesse, who founded one of Africa’s earliest software firms in 1991 [see “The African Hacker,” IEEE Spectrum, August 2005], has even arranged with radio stations to interrupt normal programming with alerts on robberies in progress.

The unusual crime-­fighting service could arise only in sub-Saharan Africa, where roughly half of the region’s 850 million people now have cellphones. To a degree unmatched anywhere else in the world, the cellphone in Africa is an engine for innovation, spawning mobile technologies that a large swath of the population can take advantage of quickly and cheaply to tackle urgent needs.

The achievement is not Africa’s alone. Global device makers, notably Nokia and Samsung, have found fertile ground for mobile phones as cheap as US $20 that boast both an FM radio and the capacity to support two SIM cards (neither feature is found in U.S. phones at any price). Indian communications company Bharti Airtel delivers the first borderless service in the world, allowing Africans from countries all over Africa to pay a single common rate.

Until recently, Africans were content to absorb, adapt, and assimilate new digital technologies. But boosted by declining costs of communications and rising prosperity, they are rebelling against the idea that the best they can do is import innovations from the rest of the world. “There’s been a distinct shift in outlook,” says Dorothy Gordon, who heads a technology incubator in Accra.

Direct experience of Silicon Valley helps, too. Chanda Chisala, who runs a software house in Lusaka, Zambia, credits the year he spent at Stanford University with expanding his horizons. With another Zambian code writer, he’s designing an ambitious algorithm to organize news and information in “an unsung African version,” Chisala says, of what Google offers.

By its number of patents or commercial innovations, Africa does not yet rate a spot on any global table. But there’s a growing awareness that creating novel products and services is essential to Africa’s health. This year, the Economic Commission for Africa launched the inaugural Innovation Prize for Africa, which is the first official effort on the continent to recognize the power of invention.

At a recent meeting on prospects for indigenous innovation, Ghana’s minister for trade and industry, Hannah Tetteh, talked openly about how Africans can find pathways toward creating hits on the scale of Facebook or Twitter.

Such talk once would have seemed quixotic or even delusional. Not anymore, because of the smash success of M-Pesa [PDF], the original mobile-money system, introduced five years ago in Kenya and now used by tens of millions of people around Africa. M-Pesa, while designed in Britain and tested in India, satisfied an urgent African need: a safe way for people working in cities to send money quickly and cheaply to their families.

Given Africa’s dismal history of sustaining complex systems, duplicating M-Pesa’s success may prove impossible. But the spread of mobile money sends a powerful signal to African innovators that they can profit by drawing on their own distinctive life experiences.

Consider Esoko, an Accra software company, which makes a tool that lets farmers equipped with cheap, “handy” phones coordinate with customers and each other via text messaging. To explore the needs of their customers, Esoko programmers routinely visit farmers. “By meeting them, we better understand the real-life consequences of our design decisions,” says Godwin Cudjoe, an Esoko code writer.

When Africans look inward at their own experience, says Chinery-Hesse, it “gives us confidence we can find our own innovation style.”

African inventors see the potential to improvise in mobile technology in much the way Africans have long done in dance, music, and the visual arts. “Steve Jobs believed that the greatest tech innovations come from the intersection of arts and science,” says Chisala. “If that’s true, then Africa has an inherent advantage due to its highly developed, intuitive art culture. We just have to sort out the science part.”

About the Author

Photo of G. Pascal Zachary

G. Pascal Zachary visited Ghana in July 2012 and interviewed more than a dozen people for this article. He is a professor of practice at the Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is the author of Showstopper!: The Breakneck Pace to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft (The Free Press, 1994), on the making of a Microsoft Windows program, and Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (The Free Press, 1997), which received IEEE’s first literary award. Zachary reported on Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s; for The New York Times, he launched the Ping column on innovation in 2007. The Scientific Estate is made possible through the support of Arizona State University and IEEE Spectrum.

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