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Cheaper smartphones and internet access key to boosting African tech

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WhatsApp has been hugely successful in Africa, partly because it allows cheap international phonecalls in addition to chat. And one company invented a new use for the application – bargaining. BalogunMarket.ng allows people to haggle over prices at Lagos’ Balogun market and pay for the goods they want, via WhatsApp. The service tries to replicate the actual experience of going to a market and bargaining, without any of the sweat.

BalogunMarket.ng was an instant success and seed investors were quick to notice. The start-up got funding to scale up its services and launched its own app, BuyChat, in October this year. With BuyChat, users will be able to buy goods and services from several Nigerian cities, with aims to expand to other countries in future. This is an example of Africa tech taking on, or at least adapting, established, non-African tech inventions with great success.

Another example is Rwanda’s SafeMotos, which provides an Uber-type service, but with motorcycle taxis. Because most African cities have areas that aren’t easily reached by car, either due to untarred or very narrow roads, motorcycle taxis are a suitable mode of transport. It is exactly the kind of service that Africans need, and of course a perfect example of leapfrogging – instead of waiting for the roads to be built, SafeMotos bypasses the need with a new solution.

African countries are leveraging technologies that are allowing them to leapfrog several development stages. But the lack of accompanying infrastructure is still holding the continent back. About 29% of Africans have active mobile broadband subscriptions, a far cry from 77% in Europe and still significantly lower than 43% in the Asia-Pacific region, based on International Telecommunication Union (ITU) data.

While 67% of Africans have a mobile phone, and thus have some access to online content, and while – with mobile technologies evolving ever faster – older but still effective smartphones are becoming cheaper (increasing access), faster fourth generation (4G) mobile telecommunication is only being rolled out in select African economies.

In addition, there are still quite a few Africans who do not have access to the smart devices needed to make the most of these advances, even if they are in one of the lucky few countries that have them. The oft-cited statistic that only 15% of Africans have smartphones may be an underestimation, but companies are nonetheless trying to fund the acquisition of smartphones.

One of the biggest barriers to allowing customers to pay off phones as part of their mobile service package is the difficulty of determining credit-worthiness, and, somewhat ironically, one of the most talked about new ways to determine credit-worthiness is by using mobile phone data.

So, companies are helping produce cheaper smartphones. In 2013, Huawei produced one in partnership with Microsoft for about US$150 a piece, while in Kenya, Safricom sells one for about $129, considerably cheaper than the predicted average price for a smartphone in the US for 2017, at around $567. It’s yet another example of technology adapting to Africa, rather than Africa having to adapt to technology. Now if only we had a similar solution for internet and data.

Rafiq Raji is an adjunct researcher at the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation.

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