Closing the gap

Msafiri’s new business columnist Nkem Ifejika makes a bold prediction about Africa’s technological future

Closing-the-GapThe African Development Bank defines ‘middle class’ as those earning between two and twenty dollars a day. This is quite a disparity when you think about it, but the broad idea is that you’re middle class when food and shelter are no longer your primary preoccupation. You have a little bit extra and can spend on leisure, going to the beach, buying a Nollywood film.

When you compare a middle class person in the United States with their equivalent in Ghana, for example, there are still disparities. These differences often manifest themselves in access to technology. The story of mobile phones being transformative in Africa is one that has been told time and again. However, just when it looked as if access to technology in Africa was approaching a par with more developed continents, another gap began to open out.

The mobile phone apps Whatsapp, Instagram, and Waze have been subjects of multi-billion dollar acquisitions. As global as these apps are, the devices on which they run can be very expensive, and out of reach of a large proportion of Africa’s middle class. So while the smartphone revolution is taking hold in the developed world, there’s a danger of Africa being left behind in the so called ‘technology gap.’

However, on recent travels I’ve noticed a fair wind blowing from the Orient. I’m reluctant to call them imitation because that doesn’t do them justice. But I’ve noticed a proliferation of phones with android operating devices from the Far East. For as little as US$90, in Nigeria you can pick up a phone that looks, feels, and most importantly, performs as well as top-end devices from Samsung or HTC.

These cheaper smartphones have drawn attention to the possibilities available for manufacturers of high-end devices in Africa. The South Korean giant Samsung, whose mantra should really be “all things to all men”, has had its Africa strategy locked down for years. Lenovo, which missed out on the first smartphone revolution in North America and Europe, is determined not to miss out again, and is ploughing its efforts into Africa. The continent is going to be the world’s most competitive smartphone market in the next few years.

It’s unlikely that African manufacturers can benefit from the boom, as established companies already have the technology in place and the marketing muscle to sell these goods. However, opportunities exist in two areas. Firstly, service providers are playing catch-up, but they can benefit. A prime example is shoddy 3G coverage. Mobile phone operators need to unleash and guarantee their services like never before.

The second area of opportunity is less capital-heavy, more lean startup. Apps. Apps, apps, apps. When David Rowan of Wired magazine, UK, said, “If you want to become an internet billionaire, move to Africa,” he knew what he was talking about. But even he didn’t talk about apps. So I’m making a bold prediction. The billion-dollar African app is coming to a smartphone near you.