Africa in 2030: A future of smartphones, drones and digital witchdoctors

Mobile connections in Africa have grown by 44% a year since 2000, the fastest in the world. But tech isn't done with Africa yet

IT has been said the main reasons we wake up in the mornings and go to work, is because we believe tomorrow will be better and more interesting than today. But you can’t keep the bad news away. Recently it was reported that drug-resistant superbugs, could kill well over 4 million people a year in Africa by 2050.

That is a lot of people, yes, but then again it might not come true. The continent is famous for surprising both the optimists and pessimists, especially when technology is introduced in the picture and we see interesting possibilities.

For example, in 2000 when US intelligence made these pessimistic predictions about Africa, no one could have seen just how big the mobile phone would be in Africa in just a few short years. Over the past 15 years, the number of mobile connections in Africa has grown by 44% a year, that’s compared to 34% in other developing regions and 10% in developed regions. 

In 2011, it was estimated that mobile operators in Africa and their associated businesses had made $32 billion, including paying $12 billion in taxes, had directly created 4.4% of the region’s GDP, and had created more than 3.5 million full time jobs, both in the formal and informal sectors.

But tech isn’t done with Africa yet. We look at some of the most important, daring and disruptive technologies that could soon define Africa’s future:

Smartphones

Smartphone penetration in Africa is about 20%, but mobile companies are determined to get more – if not all – subscribers using smartphones. Smartphones mean data, and data means money – MTN Nigeria reports that the average revenue per smartphone user is 3.5 times more than non-smartphone user, and the trend is similar among other African telcos. Thus Kenyan and East African giant Safaricom no longer sells feature phones in its retail shops.

Mobile and tech companies know that data is addictive. Facebook has a very ambitious plan to get everyone in the world, all seven billion people, online by partnering with mobile companies to offer consumers slices of Internet content for free, knowing that they will be willing to pay for more in the future – kind of like a drug dealer giving you your first hit on the house.

One of the barriers to adopting smartphones has been price – Huawei’s $100 Ideos smartphone was heralded as the long-awaited entry point into data for lower end consumers. But Microsoft is taking it even lower, two weeks ago unveiling the Nokia 215, a smartphone retailing at just $29.

One conservative prediction reckons there will be 334 million African smartphone connections by 2017, maybe 30% of the continent’s population. But in the next two years, smartphones will make up the majority of phone sales in Africa, and they have already outsold feature phones in the under-30 age bracket in markets like Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. 

Data accounted for 14.3% of mobile service revenues in Africa in 2012 but will account for 26.8% in 2018.

Drones

Drones are one of the biggest buzz in tech right now, having crossed over from exclusively military applications to consumer-geared unmanned aircraft. However, companies don’t seem to really know what people will want to use the vehicle for – this article says that the companies making them seem to believe buyers will enjoy simply flying around taking videos, and will eventually invent new uses that increase their appeal.

The most immediate application for drones in the African context is security. They could be used for surveillance, and for tracking police or army soldiers as they move around in hostile territory. 

For example, banditry is a big problem in many of Africa’s remote pastoralist areas, where police are often forced to move around virtually incommunicado – 61 policemen in Kenya have been killed in the past two years as they pursued cattle rustlers, only for them to be closed in by hills and trapped in a valley, giving the bandits a chance to strike them down one by one, sniper-style.

There’s been a proposal to use drones to ship cargo around Africa, circumventing the continent’s dilapidated infrastructure – the radical plan, which has been largely been discussed as a fanciful idea in tech workshops so far, seems like it could actually become a reality. 

The world’s first commercial cargo drone route is to be operational by 2016, says this story by Wired. It will be about 80 kilometers long and will carry small payloads—probably units of blood to keep patients alive. But they could quickly evolve into larger and heavier craft until they can carry 20 kilos or more over distances of several hundred kilometers.

Drones could also be used in agricultural extension – for example, to take soil samples from farms, or for building inspection, to assess the robustness of a newly constructed building.

Telemedicine and smart fabrics

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Africa has 24% of the world’s burden of disease but only 3% of health workers, commanding less than 1% of world health expenditure. The poor health infrastructure – and high mobile penetration – offers an opportunity for technology to bridge this gap, although at the moment, the uptake of telemedicine in Africa remains low.

You might think it’s because of some technical issues, such as low bandwidth or poorly qualified staff, but one study showed that one of the greatest barriers to the adoption of technology in hospitals is that they often add extra steps into the routine clinical workflow, adding a burden to already overworked doctors and nurses.

Still, robotics is being used in the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa, by which a doctor is able to assess an incoming patient without physically examining them, reducing transmission to healthcare workers. Many patient-healthcare worker infections happen at the initial exam, before the health care workers knows for sure that the patient has Ebola.

But there’s more – smart fabrics are under development, in which tiny chips are woven into the fabric of clothing, that could take your vital signs such as blood pressure, temperature and pulse rate, and even wirelessly dispatch this information to your doctor.

It could act as an early warning signs for a heart attack, for example – despite being called an “attack”, which implies that it comes from nowhere, there are many telltale signs before cardiac arrest, including a decrease in oxygen saturation levels, an irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, or pain in the shoulder, neck, jaw and arm.

And as non communicable diseases – the kind that need long-term monitoring – are soon going to be a much bigger problem in Africa: By the year 2020, diseases like cancer, diabetes and stroke are expected to account for seven out of every ten deaths, compared with less than half today.

Artificial intelligence and the “e-sangoma”

Imagine this: a computer programme that collects everything a person has ever said on the internet, and every public correspondence available, and uses this data to construct a model of how that person communicates: word choice, style, sense of humour, everything.

This kind of “chatbot” artificial intelligence is already being developed, and its creators think that it can be used to simulate conversation with a loved one who has passed away. Granted, this is creepy stuff, but who knows, maybe an enterprising African sangoma (shaman or the uncharitable would say witchdoctor) somewhere will use it to simulate a conversation with the (recently departed) ancestors.

How’s that for brand positioning.


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