Operators, developers, content providers and investors in Africa’s tech industry all gathered together last week for AfricaCom, one of highlights of the tech calendar in
Africa. The battle cry ‘The winds of change have arrived”, by Rlabs founder Marlon Parker echoed through the halls.

And it is mobile that is blowing this wind. With over 750 million mobile subscribers across the continent, in Africa, it’s mobile first.

Many people own several phones and multiple sim cards, in order to take advantage of different tariffs favouring friends and family. So it is no surprise that mobile demand has been growing at 50% year on year in Sub Saharan Africa. In Zimbabwe and Nigeria, mobile accounts for over half of all web traffic – compared to a ten percent global average. But it’s not just the numbers that matter. “People on mobile are more engaged”, said Facebook’s Nicola D’Elia. “They spend more time and share more content so mobile is a great opportunity.” And mobile ads perform better than those on desktop.

But Facebook doesn’t dominate. South Africa’s homegrown social networking platform MXit runs neck and neck with big boy, with over 10 million subscribers across the continent. Jesse Green, founder of UbuntuDeal.co.za, believes the future of social is with locally developed platforms including 2go, and bozza.mobi. This remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure; mobile allows more people to be more social in more places.

What about the other 3 billion people?

Yet infrastructural limitations mean there is a massive disparity between urban and rural areas. This gap offers a great opportunity for providers who are looking to find a way to jump straight in with 3g and 4g networks. They are all chasing what they see as a potential growth market but until now the costs to do this have been prohibitive. Yet when a 10% increase in ICT penetration has the potential to generate a 1pt growth in a country’s GDP the question of how to reach the currently underserved ‘Other 3 billion’ is now on everyone’s mind.

Satellite is traditionally expensive and fibres challenging and costly to lay in landlocked countries. So Omar Trujillo, of O3b networks took delegates through his company’s approach.

03b will be launching 12 new satellites in 2013. These will be smaller and closer to earth than traditional satellites allowing economies of scale with multiple launches. By keeping their set up costs low, the company aims to offer better quality data at lower prices to more people. Other providers are looking at providing solar powered internet kiosks in hard to reach areas.

These are just some of the steps operators are taking to reach underserved communities. But what about the content that needs to be offered to these
communities?

From Crystal Meths dealer to head of R&D?

“The increase in mobile penetration needs to be backed up with quality products and great content”, Facebook’s D’Elia stresses. Africa is currently one of the biggest creators of YouTube content and there is no denying entertainment leads the way. However the social and health benefits offered via basic handsets, broadband, or 4G, are hard to ignore.

Dr Loren Treisman, Executive of Indigo Trust, investors in ICT, says ‘Mobile technology is transforming the development sector. Platforms are giving citizens a voice and empowering activists to demand change in their communities. In South Africa, a project by [telcoms operator] Cell Life is enabling Cape Town’s citizens to send text, audio and video reports outlining [social problems] using SMS, Twitter, MXit, email and web’.

Marlon Parker of Rlabs who is championing much of this change is himself behind Jamiix, a mobile counseling services, which delivers drug and unemployment support information to neglected communities. He cites the example of his head of R&D who changed his life around thanks to the information he could get through his phone.

My cow is your cow

So whether it’s the iCow app, which provides dairy farmers with timely advice on how to care for cattle through their phone, substance abuse support or unemployment advice, mobile is delivering content to the underserved …all at the press of a thumb. Marlon’s vision is that this can give many hope.

It seems that for whatever reason it’s a vision that many share as mobile and social media pushes further up the telcoms food chain. In a recent survey of goods valued by 18-24 year olds across South Africa, the majority listed bread as the top essential item. Blackberry came second. Diapers were at number 4. And that’s no sh*t.

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