Tech can help deal blow to hunger in Africa; and the Ebola app that has been downloaded by 500,000

Mobile phone apps that are locally relevant to Africa are beginning to take off.

THERE is little doubt that mobile technology has the power to meaningfully transform lives in Africa. Mobile banking service M-Pesa has revolutionised access to financial services; Planet Earth Institute has taken on mobile learning; and the World Health Organisation is addressing health issues using mobile devices.

What the introduction of mobile internet has shown is that there is no lack of demand for services by a population long starved of basic access to information.

“Today its consumers demanding information,” says George Ferreira, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Samsung Electronics Africa during a wide-ranging interview with Mail & Guardian Africa. “And what this does is empower people to get access to information, technology and healthcare and even the ability to start a business.”

Like other technology firms, Samsung has been at the forefront of a number of initiatives that leverage its mobile technology and role as a key stakeholder and influencer on the continent.

Education innovation

One main area is education. A notable innovation is the construction of solar-powered schools in rural areas that are provided with technology and Internet services that help bridge their lack of access to basic teaching aids. The concept was piloted in South Africa and has subsequently been rolled out to the DRC and Ghana, with plans to expand this initiative further in 2015. 

Another project with long-term benefits is the “Samsung Academy” that helps to build technical skills across Africa. This is aimed at children in the final two years of school or university students who undergo rigorous training in various technical subjects that prepare them for a career in the field of consumer electronics. Such is Samsung’s commitment to encourage these youngsters that it guarantees employment to students that achieve an 80% pass mark. 

The university-level Samsung Academy is active in territories including Kenya, Ethiopia, Gabon, Nigeria, Angola, DRC, Ivory Coast and Namibia. It is only in South Africa that it is currently aimed at children still at school. “Jobs we’ve created through this initiative and building the Samsung brand amounts to many thousands, and this is fuelling it,” Ferreira says. He admits that not all graduates remain with Samsung but takes the view that growing the level of technical skills on the continent is for the good of the entire consumer electronics industry.

Another area is in health. Samsung recently collaborated with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to develop a mobile phone app that provides vital information to communities living in affected areas, as well as people traveling to these countries.

“If you look at the Ebola virus, it has shown the world it is not immune to it and its become a global problem, not only an African problem. We’ve seen that access to information is required to track new cases of the virus and how it’s being dealt with. Before, how did you get that information?,” Ferreira says.

As he points out, this is increasingly being driven by consumer demand more than by brands or developers pushing their solutions into the market.

Tobacco farmers

“These apps are making ground in Africa. If you look at the tobacco farmers in Mozambique in terms of how they’re communicated with and how they sell, it’s all via mobile communications. What this shows is that apps that are locally relevant to Africa, and more specific to a country or region, are now taking off.

“Of course you have to consider the return on the investment, but generally they’re not expensive to develop and once they go viral the uptake is enormous. The Ebola app, for example, has been downloaded by more than 500,000 people.”

Samsung was keen to point to point to points under its social investment banner.

It said it has, for instance, used its partnership with WHO to develop a smart health app that delivers basic medical information to users. This covers preventative measures against common diseases such as malaria and HIV.

“We have partnered with the likes of MTN, that provides zero-rated access to the app in all their operations across Africa.,” Ferreira explains.

It has also delivered physical healthcare services to remote communities by equipping a medical bus that conducts regular visits to remote areas.

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