Botswana Speaks blog

New apps transforming remote parts of Africa

For generations, breeding cows in the rural highlands of Kenya has hinged on knowledge and experience passed down from parents to children. But Mercy Wanjiku is unlike most farmers. Her most powerful tool is her cellphone, and a text messaging service called iCow.

The service informs her when her cows are in heat, which feed might boost their milk output and what their fair market price is. And when she needed a veterinarian recently, she relied on the service’s extensive database. “Otherwise, it would have been hard to find someone qualified in my area,” said Wanjiku, a 29-year-old farmer in Mweru, a village about 100 miles north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, technology, particularly mobile technology, has transformed the lives of digital-savvy entrepreneurs. While many are forging successful high-tech businesses in urban centers, others are finding ways to help people such as Wanjiku prosper in more traditional, low-tech professions such as farming and fishing. Digital tools are also being used to overcome the continent’s obstacles to growth, such as corruption and weak health care, social services and education. In recent months, text messaging was a crucial tool in monitoring elections in Kenya and Ghana.

“In Africa, we have too many problems, which provide [so] many opportunities for technology,” said Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communications. “Today, there are multiple options to address these problems. If Plan A doesn’t work, there’s Plan B and Plan C.”

Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest-­growing mobile market in the world, increasing an average of 44 percent annually since 2000, according to the GSMA, a global body representing cellphone operators, as competition among providers has lowered costs, creating tens of millions of users. With the advent of cheaper smartphones, many predict a surge in mobile apps in the years ahead.

In Kenya, a well-known example of how mobile technology has altered the economic and social landscape is M-PESA, a cellphone-based money transfer service used by millions that has become the biggest such service in the world. Its success has inspired thousands of software developers across the continent, including Su Kahumbu, the founder of iCow.

“M-PESA has done amazing things for this country. It has taught farmers the value of cellphones and SMSes,” said Kahumbu, an organic farmer, referring to text messaging. “Our system is piggybacking on this.”

Big potential

In a nation where 80 percent of the population farm their land, iCow started off with a simple premise: The creation of a gestation calendar would increase the productivity of the cows and, hence, food production and the wealth of individuals and communities.

Farmers can register their cows by sending a text message to iCow. That allows them to receive cellphone messages tailored to their needs. They get alerts, for example, on feeding schedules, on when to expect their cows to be in heat or on disease outbreaks. The service also functions as a Craigslist of sorts for farmers looking to connect with their peers to buy and sell cattle.

Originally published by Sudarsan Raghavan on March 31

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