Over the last decade and a half, African economies have experienced exponential growth at rates well above the global average, though this momentum has largely slowed down over the past couple of years. The growth has largely been brought about from the extractives and agriculture sectors, driven by China’s involvement in the continent to satisfy its demand for raw materials.
While this growth has not spread evenly throughout the continent, the level of innovation has been interesting to watch, especially keeping in mind the equalizing effect of technology as it spreads to the continent's farthest reaches.
At the heart of this gradual change is the mobile phone, which has become a game changer for the continent. According to Ericsson, by 2019 there will be 930 million mobile phones in Africa, almost one for every person on the continent.
Mobile tech has made an impact on a serious scale. Mobile money transfer, for example, has disrupted traditional financial models. The continent is starting to see the rise of e-healthcare solutions and online education, where the connectivity offered by mobile phones being used to tackle two of the biggest challenges on the continent - health and education.
The results are staggering. Africa’s mobile market topped US$51 billion last year, which was more than the amount of money sent via mobile in Europe and North America combined in 2012, according to Gartner, and mobile money has become a $617 billion industry.
The work being done to bridge the gaps that exist in our continent has turned Africa into a technology generator rather than just an adopter. As a result of this shift, and we are seeing great levels of experimentation in a market with few competitors. One such example is the use of drone technology to bypass infrastructure challenges and deliver urgently needed medical care in Rwanda and Madagascar.
As the technology and innovation boom takes hold, there is still a gender divide, and we need to ensure that women and girls are part of this revolution. There is a real need to ensure that the work going into innovation is inclusive, meaning that we need more women become part of the design and development of technological solutions. There are many programs on the continent leading this charge, such as Women in Tech Africa and Akirachix, but much more needs to be done at the grassroots level - more funding for tech education as a whole, for instance, which will lead to more opportunities for women to get involved in tech.
Governments across the continent are realizing the need to deploy technologies to deliver essential services to the people. Government offices in Kenya and Rwanda, for example, have moved from tedious face-to-face interactions, made worse by an impenetrable bureaucracy and endless red tape, to online service delivery.
The resulting momentum is opening up access to valuable data that is of interest to innovators. For example, you can now pay for a business license, apply for a passport, file your taxes, and renew your driving license online in Kenya, making essential data that would otherwise be kept hidden in dusty files in perpetually locked offices is now much more readily available.
The wave of technology innovation in Africa will not forgive anyone who chooses to remain rooted in traditional methods that are not in tune with the digital environment. Disruptive technologies are changing lives in Africa, and innovation is driving this change.