Africa Tech Trends is a fortnightly column by Tom Jackson focusing on the most important developments in Africa’s technology industry and examining how technology is disrupting the way business is being done on the continent.
Microsoft pilot projects
The use of so-called TV white spaces technology is on the increase across Africa. Microsoft 4Afrika this week partnered with the Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH) to launch a telemedicine service over a TV white spaces network. Microsoft has already rolled out white spaces pilots in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana and Namibia, and has promised another four over the course of this year. Google is also experimenting with the technology.
So what are TV white spaces and why are they a big deal? White spaces technology enables the delivery of broadband using dynamic spectrum access, with unused spectrum usually used to deliver television channels utilised. It is becoming an increasingly popular technology due to what proponents say is its potential to reduce the cost of accessing broadband. Microsoft says it can reduce the cost of a 2Mbit/s wireless service to consumers to only US$1.50 per month. If this figure is correct, white spaces will see a huge uptake in coming years.
Internet penetration in Africa is so low that any technology able to bring down the cost and boost access is welcome. Just 26.5% of Africans are connected to the internet. A recent United Nations report said sub-Saharan African countries made up eight of the 10 countries with the lowest levels of internet availability in the world. These facts need addressing, and it is a case of “so far, so good” in this respect for TV white spaces.
Shortage of women in technology
Come International Women’s Day, come the usual debates about the role of women in tech. It is stating the obvious to say that there are far too few women working in technology in Africa – but also across the world. The shortage is particularly evident when one looks at the upper echelons of tech companies with relatively few female CEOs and founders.
Many welcome the opportunity for debate on the topic, organising events and training sessions around the subject. But this activism contrasts with the view of other women in tech, who dislike debates on the subject of gender and say it is an overblown issue. That women just need to get on with their lives, and their ability will shine through.
Whatever side of the argument you stand on, it is undeniable that strides are being made in the right direction. There is less talk, and more action. Tech hubs are running programming and entrepreneurship courses for women. The likes of codeX in South Africa are working hard to teach young girls to code. African women are being invited to apply for the Silicon Valley incubator Blackbox’s female-only accelerator. And She Leads Africa and Intel are running continent-wide workshops focused on women.
It is a vital subject, and the debate will continue for years yet, but positive steps are certainly being taken to increase female representation in Africa’s tech sector.
Local manufacturing could boost African devices
Smartphone usage is growing at speed in Africa, with global firms looking to take advantage. Mozilla and Orange have rolled out a sub-$25 smartphone in 13 countries, while TECNO promises a sub-$30 smartphone this year. But African mobile vendors are also making waves. South Africa has Zest and Dream Mobile. Nigeria has Nerve Mobile. And, in the Republic of Congo, there is VMK.
Due to lower costs and a more skilled workforce, African mobile phone companies have typically had their phones produced and assembled in China. But VMK is changing this, putting the finishing touches to its own assembly plant which it claims will bring down costs and increase output. At the cost of nearly $2m, it is a bold move.
Should it work, however, it could be a boon to Africa-produced mobiles and set a new precedent. The VMK plant has a planned production of over 350,000 units per month, and will be used to assemble VMK’s range as well of products from other companies. Prices in China have been on the increase, and there is a potential for Africa to set itself up as a destination for manufacturing of electronics.
The issues that could threaten the success of the project are the need to train an entirely new workforce, build a supply chain and scale effectively enough to make the investment in manufacturing viable.
It remains to be seen if VMK can do it. Its competitors will be watching closely.