Are Smartphones a smart choice for Africa?

iphone_black.pngBack in 2007, I stared keenly at my Mac computer screen as Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s iPhone. Like everyone else, I was immediately astounded by the capabilities of the product and of course by the fact that it was made by Apple. Steve Jobs made a very profound statement during his introductory remarks. He said, “The problem with smartphones today is that they’re not that smart.” He was right. Up until then, smartphones were complicated devices that required a geek level of intelligence to operate. Today, most smartphones emulate the revolutionary ideas and simplicity of the iPhone. Users can download and install applications ranging from productive tools such as calorie trackers to completely whimsical ideas like ‘office jerk’. However, to fully enjoy the capabilities of most smartphones requires an internet connection and access to location based services. This has not been a problem for users living in the developed world, since these services are increasingly becoming basic amenities, and more content developers continue to tailor their products to take full advantage of these resources. Content developers have deeply enriched the lifestyle of users with many innovative products that address the needs in their communities. The issue is: How has Africa and the rest of the developing world benefited from the import of smartphone technology into the market? Are smartphones a worthy tool for Africans or are they just a fashionable accessory?

Africa has for a long time been playing catch-up in the technological revolution of the digital age. We eagerly adopt technology even when it is peripheral to our lifestyle. In the developed world, there are people who patronize technological devices as a means of acquiring some cachet in society, but there are also people whose decisions are purely inspired by functional needs. These same trends exist in Africa, especially between the corporate and mainstream segments, but my main concern is with the failure to use smartphone technology as a platform to address the social concerns of Africa. 

In my bid to find out more about this issue, I spoke with Dela Avemega, the creative and innovations manager of RLG Phones, a Ghanaian mobile phone manufacturing company. He said: “The main issue is the lack of widespread internet facilities to support the high demands of smartphones”. According to Mr. Avemega, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and Flipboard are among the most widely used smartphone applications – most of which fall under the social and entertainment categories. His company also produces ringtones and wallpapers specifically designed for the Ghanaian market. However, given the rising number of smartphone users in Ghana, and the large number of social issues that plague the nation, it is surprising that very few companies are working to develop content that address some of these concerns. Mr. Avemega highlighted that one of the major barriers of developing content for the iPhone in particular is the really arduous task of submitting products to Apple’s content stores from a location like Ghana. However, Nana Sarpong of Nkyea Learning Systems, a company devoted to promoting the African culture through its mobile applications, seems to think differently about this matter. He explains that the issue is an extension of the general lack of concern and responsibility that most Ghanaians feel towards their community. He states that, ”Apple’s submission process is tedious, but not impossible. The main problem is that most developers in Ghana don’t think it’s worthwhile to invest all their time and effort to sell products for the minimum price of 99 cents.” What this means is that foreign-based companies are left to tap into this growing market and enjoy the full benefits. A German based company named SAP, seems to have found its niche in this area. The company develops business software that enables Shea nut traders of Janga, in the Northern part of Ghana, to scan the unique identifiers on their bagged produce with their smartphones, which then uploads the data to a server and connects them to potential buyers. The software records what each trader should be paid based on the weight, basic price and quality. This innovation has fostered collaboration among the traders to find out more ways of increasing the quality of their product to attract more buyers. SAP also reports that the synchronization of data between the smartphone and server can also be achieved via bulk SMS in the absence of an internet connection. The use of smartphones to improve traditional activities such as these is a great example of how Africa can leverage the technology to suit its peculiar needs. Indeed, the smartphone platform could even help improve transportation, education and public health issues, given the increased number of users in recent years. 

Admittedly, it’s going to take more than smartphone technology to address some of these needs. In order to prepare the market for the full integration of smartphones into the culture, a few housekeeping tasks will have to be done. One of the main barriers I’ve identified is that Africa has done very poorly in terms of data collection. Hence, there is very little user information that enables content developers to build products that enrich the lives of people living on the continent. Developing productive applications requires substantive research and planning, which most companies are reluctant to invest in. For instance, the public transportation sector could be greatly improved if smartphone users could track arrival and departure times from their devices and plan their days accordingly, but this is next to impossible given the impetuous nature with which the sector is currently being managed. Thus, organization is going to be a key determinant of how Africa can properly integrate smartphone technology into the society. Secondly, there’s the need to improve the framework that supports the structural demands of smartphones if we’re to see it put to a more productive use. This means improving our internet facilities and ensuring that it is accessible not only to the corporate demographic, but also the mainstream audience as well. Also, we shouldn’t neglect basic services such as bulk SMS and automated voice prompts. These are affordable, dependable and convenient ways of integrating the wider audience especially those living in villages. Lastly, content developers living in Africa need to take up the mantle and start building products that respond to the needs of their communities. We need to think globally and act locally especially given the universality of devices such as the iPhone. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but the products we develop need to be relevant to the community into which they are adopted.

There are many who think that Africa has jumped a crucial developmental stage in terms of its adoption of smartphones, but I believe the mistakes that were made by other markets have served as a great learning opportunity for many smartphone companies and users alike. As such, Africa doesn’t need to go through the same cycle again, but rather use those lessons to leverage its own developmental needs. The mistake we usually make is to prioritize concerns such as education, transportation and health above technology. Technology should be treated as a catalyst for development and not as a separate item on the developmental ladder. The key is to use technology such as smartphones as a platform to disseminate knowledge to the masses. I strongly believe that if you empower people with knowledge, you equip them to address their other needs.

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