Part I: How “SMAC” Technology is Transforming the African Continent

This is the first in a three-part series on how Social, Mobile, Analytic, and Cloud technology is transforming the African continent.

“Can you help us bring more women into IT in Africa?”

Binta Coudy Dé is slight and tall, but her presence cannot be ignored, her piercing gaze softened by a gentle smile. She addresses her question, in French, to a group of IBM Corporate Service Corps participants in Dakar, Senegal, convened for a community conference on the tech revolution in Africa, begging the pardon of those convened for taking time from the event to advocate for her organization’s goals.

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Binta Coudy Dé (right) and the Jiguene Tech Hub team at the Corporate Service Corps Community Day Conference in Dakar.

 

Coudy is the founder of Jiguene Tech Hub  (jiguene is Wolof for woman), a Senegalese organization headquartered in Dakar dedicated to bringing women to computer science and IT. She and two friends founded the organization two years ago, after becoming the first African women to compete in the Microsoft Imagine Cup in 2011.

Coudy and her team of 15 seek to bring women to technology in whatever way they can, often through workshops in PowerPoint and Excel. But their efforts are especially focused on motivating women and girls to pursue careers as coders and developers.

The imperative to engage women in technology early and often reaches bar beyond Senegal. The absence of women in hard tech industries is felt from Shanghai to Palo Alto, and the solution to the challenge is anything but obvious. American organizations like Girls Who Code and others have begun to move the needle, but, as with most things, progress requires a curious mind and the opportunity to show women and girls the difference greater technical savvy can make in their lives.

In a world of rapid technological innovation, SMAC—social, mobile, analytics, and cloud—has become the ubiquitous term for the growth frontier. Social and mobile technologies in particular are driving the way individuals learn and engage with new methods and approaches.

The Language Barrier

For all the good intentions, however, challenges prevail. Language differences create incredible challenges in both the effective execution and the dissemination of technical know-how. What’s more, technology need not refer to a database or a mobile phone.

In Senegal, l’Institute de technologie alimentaire (ITA) has been developing and producing food processing solutions for more than 50 years. It was their innovation that allowed Senegal to profitable package its native juices of hibiscus, baobab, and ginger for external markets. Yet, ITA remains relatively unknown throughout the country, largely because producers who would make use of its technology live in rural areas and speak only Wolof, not French.

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Ndèye DOUMOUYA, Director of External Relations at l’Institute de technologie alimentaire, speaks at the CSC Senegal kickoff event.

 

In Senegal, French is the official language of business, communications and government, in which all official meetings and correspondence is conducted. But it is almost no one’s mother tongue—Wolof is the informal lingua franca—and many Senegalese, especially those in rural areas, do not speak French. This makes marketing and training by an organization like ITA extraordinarily difficult. Awareness-raising and training on food production technology must be conducted orally and in Wolof to have any effect.

According to a UNESCO report published in October 2012, 66 percent of Senegalese youth between the ages of 15 and 24 do not complete primary school.

“We are witnessing a young generation frustrated by the chronic mismatch between skills and work. The best answer to the economic downturn and youth unemployment is to ensure that young people acquire the basic skills and relevant training they need to enter the world of work with confidence,” said Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO.

“Many, and young women in particular, need to be offered alternative pathways for an education, so that they can gain the skills needed to earn a living, live in dignity, and contribute to their communities and societies.”

According to the report, the rural poor are the worst off: 94 percent of the rural poorest aged 15 to 24 have less than a lower secondary education.

Coders4Africa is a pan-African organization that seeks to empower recent graduates in IT and computer science to develop indigenous technical solutions to the continents many challenges. The program draws in students from across West Africa, from Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Mali, in addition to Senegal. An interesting hurdle they face in their training is that most code languages were developed in English, a language few in Francophone Africa speak well. Developing (Francophone) African coders requires providing them with sufficient English knowledge to master the code.

This challenge persists beyond Senegal. In South Africa, many African children are raised speaking only their tribal language, Zulu, Sotho, or Xosa or, for those of mixed racial origin, Afrikaans. Kindergarten is the first time many South African children ever hear English spoken, and South Africa’s education system has lagged behind in its ability to ensure that graduates of public schools are both literate and numerate.

In South Africa, Miriam Altman, an education scholar, has begun to explore ways to use mobile technology in education. Earlier this year, Altman served as an Executive Director of South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, where she worked with a team of IBM Corporate Service Corps participants to assess the mobile-education opportunity landscape in South Africa. This spring, Altman was appointed to head Telkom’s strategy division.

Empowering a nation’s children with mastery of the same language is, at its core, simple, but in practice, extraordinarily complex. It all starts with education. Without the ability to read, write, and compute basis math, it is extraordinarily difficult for an individual to change their circumstances. To be truly successful, education programs need to go beyond basic training to applied relational learning.

Mobile, Mobile, Mobile

Across Africa, mobile phones are proliferating faster than the data can track. In many countries, most people own two phones, or at least two SIM cards, to ensure they are connected when one network acts up. While smart phones are still a small piece of the market, every new phone iteration pushes better and better phones down the user stream. In South Africa, a business man upgrades to the iPhone 5S and gives his 5 to his wife who gives her 4S to her daughter who gives her 4 to the maid. Throughout Africa, basic phones are ubiquitous, and feature phones have become increasingly mainstream.

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Cristelle Scharff shows a mobile application designed to help tailors advertise their latest fashions.

 

Cristelle Scharff is a computer science PhD and Fulbright scholar who has chosen to bring her vast technical knowledge, and a determination to use mobile to transform Africa, to Senegal.  Cristelle works on a number of fronts to engage and educate up and coming developers on how to develop better, more effective, more market-ready applications. She has created MobileSenegal, specifically focused on shaping the professional abilities of mobile application developers.

“We hear a lot about Kenya and South Africa, but Francophone Africa is also on the map for tech and mobile. There are lots of things still to come—get ready!” says Scharf.

Mobile has already begun to transform the continent through the integration of mobile technology and currency transfer. “Mobile money” as it has come to be known, is sweeping the African continent. In some contexts, some government regulations and legislative actions are required to make mobile money effective, but where these steps have been taken, the use of the medium has taken off.

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In Kenya, the first market to effectively adapt the appropriate taxation laws, M-PESA is the go-to money transfer mechanism. The M-PESA wiki claims, “M-PESA is a branchless banking service, meaning that it is designed to enable users to complete basic banking transactions without visiting a bank branch.” According to The Economist, 17 million Kenyans use the service, transmitting among them roughly 25 percent of the nation’s GNP.

M-PESA is the most developed mobile money system in the world, but others are taking off, fast. In Senegal, Wari Gateway is the M-PESA equivalent, an indigenously developed application. In Senegal, the application is used 65,000 times a day by 2,000 agents, and the apps developers have now taken it into a number of neighboring countries. These applications are both social and mobile, simultaneously enriching the social fabric of the country by reinforcing the connection between individuals, across geographies.

In South Africa’s Western Cape Province, large public institutions are beginning to develop mobile applications to address more acute challenges, like emergency triage. A partnership of organizations, including the Kujali Living Lab and Tompsa, have partnered together to create a mobile application for nurses, based on the South African Triage Scale. The paper-based form of the protocol has already been shown to reduce mortality by 50 percent. The app intends to further improve on this statistic.

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“Do your ‘Likes’ tell you everything you need to know about your clients?” – An IBM advertisement in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.

 

Even as social-mobile solutions proliferate, more systemic factors, such as a scarcity of laptops and limited bandwidth slow growth. Yet, in the context of technology development and proliferation, mobile and social are the most visible cutting edge. Their utilization is measurable and significant. Analytics and Cloud are the “silent partners” in the SMAC equation, requiring much deeper infrastructure development and more effective maintenance, but potentially even more transformative.

Stay tuned for Part II and III of the series, which will address Analytics and Cloud technology, and their impact on technology in Africa.

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