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Aid projects help Africa become ICT competitor

Africa is becoming a global player with the help of ICT vendors implementing their innovative technologies. Here we focus on examples of how the smart deployment of often basic ICT technology has brought big benefits to some of its communities.

Many developed countries aspire to lead the way in technological innovation, but it is often the challenges presented by less advanced markets that bring out the best in the ICT sector's ingenuity. Vendors are now seeing the potential to make 'late-comer' Africa more of a global competitor as well as a global market.

With a population of over one billion this presents significant opportunities on both fronts, and vendor-sponsored small-scale but pioneering technological deloyments are playing a major part in this transformation.

As both developed and developing countries continue to invest their resources in technology, such as advanced computing, faster Internet access, and resilient wireless communications, Mark Walker, analyst at market intelligence firm IDC, explains the shift in terms of expedient expansion.

"Growth in developed regions like Western Europe and North America has slowed significantly," he says. "In order to maintain their commercial momentum, technology manufacturers must unlock new markets. This is why Africa is so highly attractive."

Walker adds: "It has a large and fast-growing population, youthful demographic profile, and an emerging middle class who would have increasing levels of disposable income to use on technology." And who might also see new African-owned tech-led enterprises as a good place to invest for their personal financial futures.

eTransform Africa

While Africa appears to have great sociological prospects for ICT vendors, Walker believes that the continent still needs injections of foreign capital and investment to fully stimulate economic growth. The World Bank and the African Development Bank revealed in their recent 'eTransform Africa' report that in 2000 there were fewer than 10 million fixed-lines phones across Africa but by 2012 there were almost 650 million mobile subscriptions, making Africa the second fastest growing region in the world, after South Asia.

The continent's least-developed sub-Saharan nations, meanwhile, are still behind in terms of basic telecommunications infrastructure, and they continue to face severe social and economic challenges when it comes to exploiting ICT for the social good.

ICT vendors are implementing their technology (or aspects of it) to tackle this in the hope of alleviating poverty to an extent, creating new employment opportunities, and improving healthcare and education.

In developing countries, e-health is seen as an important enabler for healthcare transformation. According to technology consulting firm Machina Research, current e-health projects in the developing world are driven by the fact that demand for medical services in rural and remote regions exceeds supply. Typically, these initiatives are funded by aid programmes, charities, and local or national government investment.

By way of example, machine-to-machine (M2M) company Sequoia Technology and Telit Wireless Solutions jointly developed a way for medical clinics in Mozambique to wirelessly receive HIV test results of expectant mothers within days of testing.

This system has now enabled mothers with HIV-positive results to receive anti-retroviral treatment, which restrains the growth and reproduction of HIV, much earlier than was possible before, with the aim of reducing the chances of transferring the virus to their newborns.

Sequoia Technology developed a small SMS printer embedded with Telit Wireless Solutions GC864-Quad V2 wireless modules. The printers were connected to a GSM cellular gateway, enabling laboratory results to be transmitted wirelessly to printers installed in rural clinics. Funded by the Clinton Foundation (former US president Bill Clinton's brainchild) and Mozambique's Ministry of Health, the HIV Early Infant Diagnosis Project has successfully shown how careful deployment of advanced technology can make a quantifiable difference. It has helped save an estimated 20,000 babies from infection in just the first six months of its launch.

The programme is now being expanded to nine other African nations including Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Uganda. ICT projects show technology can facilitate the development of sub-Saharan Africa and also meet the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Social impacts

There are, of course, many ongoing conventional aid initiatives where charities and NGOs such as Save the Children and ActionAid provide support and create safer environments; but the nature of charitable initiatives are changing as ICT is now finding a place in these aid initiatives.

At first sight this is a laudable deployment of a company's corporate social responsibility policy, but it is fair to suggest that such initiatives are a way for the big players to extend their corporate reach into potential new markets.

The combination of corporate benevolence and low-key commercial opportunism does not necessarily present a contradiction, says Joss Gillet, senior analyst at Wireless Intelligence: "The difference is that there is a mix of both social and commercial goals. These ICT projects are generally looking to provide a low-cost product or service that can be distributed to many to make profits through achieving scale, rather than on margins."

Gillet adds: "Conventional aid initiatives do not have a bottom line to worry about – they only measure their success based on reaching the end user."

However, IDC's Walker believes that the investment by technology companies "is driven less by philanthropic goals than by a strong commercial expectation founded on Africa's emerging benefits". He says: "This economic focus encourages a far more pragmatic approach with far finer management of the investments made and, importantly, the returns on these investments." In Walker's view these investments will be "rapidly downscaled" should "the returns not materialise according to expectations".

UN Development Goals

In September 2000 the United Nations established its eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), international objectives aimed to improve social and economic conditions using mobile telephony and broadband by 2015. The eight goals are 'End Poverty and Hunger', 'Universal Education', 'Gender Equality', 'Child Health', 'Maternal Health', 'HIV/AIDS', 'Environment', and 'Partnership'.

The 'Sub-Saharan Africa Mobile Observatory 2012' report, prepared by consultancy firm Deloitte and GSM Association, also details examples on how ICT has influenced the UN's eight goals. The impact of mobile broadband, for instance, has meant that Ghanaian farmers are able to use a mobile and Web-based system called Farmerline, which bridges the gap between rural farmers and agro-industry sources to help alliviate poverty and hunger. This system enables farmers to ask questions and send SMS alerts on tackling pests or diseases, agricultural techniques and weather forecasts.

Another mobile telephony initiative, which tackles the UN's child health goal, is RapidSMS. This system is specifically designed for health workers to identify malnutrition among children in areas of rural Malawi. The system uses text messaging to transmit weight and height information in two minutes (rather than two months, as was previously the case), which enables health workers to quickly analyse data and provide necessary treatment to health staff in the rural areas.

Digital connectivity

Of course, enabling new technology innovations in developing countries comes with constraints. Mobile broadband has the ability to increase economic productivity, especially as sub-Saharan Africa starts to rely on mMoney (mobile money) initiatives as a way of circulating currency.

However, according to mobile industry body the GSMA, the amount of spectrum allocated to mobile services in Africa is among the lowest worldwide, with some countries allocating as little as 80MHz and many between 200MHz and 300MHz. In comparison, developed countries' allocations exceed 500MHz, with Europe aiming to allocate 1,000Mhz.

Further challenges stem from the fact that the majority of the population is not digitally connected and is unfamiliar with new technologies. Walker says challenges can be categorised into "unrealistic expectations, physical infrastructure availability, relevance, affordability, regulatory requirements and skill"s.

He explains: "Unrealistic expectations are largely due to poor research undertaken prior to market entry by technology suppliers, expectations are then based on flawed assumptions. Often the solutions put forward by technology suppliers are irrelevant, overly complicated, or inappropriate for local African conditions, such as infrastructure, including transport and telecoms, which is typically poor and impacts cost and speed."

This was the case in 2010, when non-governmental organisation Darja founded the three-year ICT project 'Maji Matone', meaning water drops, in Tanzania and it unfortunately failed. The aim of the project was to encourage local communities to put pressure on local governments to maintain and repair broken water pumps by using SMS technology. These messages were sent to authorities and also local radio stations, who gave the issues media attention.

According to Darja, the project had not lived up to its expectations as only 53 SMS messages – not the 3,000 that were anticipated – were received during its six-month pilot scheme. Darja decided to end the project and investigate why it failed, concluding that political tensions between local communities and authorities meant that citizens were reluctant to report on their government. As well as this, water collection is typically the responsibility of women and children who often do not have access to a mobile phone. There was also a lack of electricity and limited mobile network coverage.

Lessons were doubtless learned that will inform future co-operative projects; and again, thanks to accessibility of communications technology, email and Web forums, individual experiences can be shared with a much broader range of parties. This will enable best practice and basic hands-on know-how to be more widely circulated between charities, aid agencies, and those they are trying to help.

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