The New African Network

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Nigeria is the largest country in Africa population wise, close to 180 million people live there, three quarters of that of the United States of America. This means 2.5% of the world population are Nigerian, a potentially huge market for technology companies and could spell big profits for anyone daring enough to set up shop there. The unfortunate truth is that while there are a lot of people, 46% of those people were below the poverty line in 2010, and this is set to increase to 61% this year.

Now there is a potential market closer to 67 million, more like the United Kingdom than the USA. If this were Dragons’ Den, any other sound investor would be out by now – leave Nigeria to build landlines before we start bringing in smartphones right? Well, the Nigerian government has no plans to build any landlines and nor should they because two thirds of the country are already mobile phone subscribers, that is a whopping 120 million people. Assuming that everybody only has one phone, then 37 million people living on less than a dollar a day, have been to their local Carphone Warehouse and bought a mobile phone.

The mobile phone industry has been doubling in size pretty much every year since 2003. While you may think that this is a gross waste of money on the part of those who would better spend what little they have on the bare essentials such as food and water, there are endless benefits. It has made it easier to start up businesses, find work and has generally streamlined the process of buying and selling in even the most remote areas. More traditional lifestyles benefit as well; farmers can sell produce over the phone instead of moving everything cross-country to market and isolated tribes now have access to emergency services.

Mobile phones are enabling African countries to leapfrog generations of communications technology as they spread rapidly.

Mobile phones are enabling African countries to leapfrog generations of communications technology as they spread rapidly.

Nigeria is not alone in this either. South Africa and Ghana have more mobile phones in use than people – a shocking fact. This may not sound like a particularly big deal, but it is huge. Suddenly people who have remained off national records for years exist, and can communicate. Using phone records has actually become a good way of compiling data about people who had previously ‘not existed’. Phone companies know about a caller’s identity, who they call and vaguely where they call from. This is useful when trying to track something in a population, like the spread of a disease in the case of an epidemic. Call Data Records (CDRs) can track people’s movements even when the phone is not being used, can find out where they have been and perhaps where they are going, or what they are going away from, which is invaluable information when dealing with the likes of the Ebola epidemic. CDRs were also used in the Mexican swine flu epidemic of 2009 and in Kenya to track the spread of Malaria to its capital, Nairobi.

However unfortunately for West Africa, nothing really happened with CDRs. The phone networks couldn’t legally give up the information without an order from the governments of the countries involved and the governments of the countries involved did not give the order. None of the moving parts really cogged together, the combination of having something so new introduced in such a short time to such a large number of relevant parties was too much to ask.

Do you remember when Internet cafés were big in this country? Nor do I, but in Ethiopia, and likely surrounding countries as well, you can find Internet cafés on every street corner, in any decent sized town at least. Actually, it is pretty much impossible to get a coffee in Ethiopia without being in a Wi-Fi hotspot. This new access to the internet is connecting people not only to others in the surrounding area, but to the entire world, giving them a base for fundraising, networking and telling the stories that has fallen on deaf ears in the West until now. Energy is also taking off, an Ethiopian Hydroelectric dam, well in to its construction already, plans to provide electricity not just to all of Ethiopia but also to export energy to surrounding countries as well.

This could be the start of a new renewable energy age in Africa and could see many countries emerge from what has been a somewhat dark time, with power networks far in advance of our own. This is ambitious but in this day and age things move quickly. There are a great many things that need to be sorted out before countries like Nigeria and Ethiopia can succeed but these technological leapfrogs have put far more power in the hands of the people and that is so important in a place where fair democracy is hard to come by.

Photo credits: Hochgeladen von Estrilda

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Rob Dewar is a Biology student. He writes about international politics.

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