Green Sky Thinking: The make-and-do attitude of African social innovation
by Colwyn Elder (@colwynelder) The next wave of innovation will come from Africa, according to the latest bulletin from trendwatching.com.
Report title aside (I’ve even started to look forward to them!), Utilit-easers packs an inspiring punch for the future of the continent, where brands are bridging the gap between basic infrastructure, utilities, public services and the burgeoning expectations of African citizens.
It seems distrust runs high, with “over half of sub-Saharan African respondents believing that their government is largely run by big entities acting in their own best interests, instead of the public good” (African Development Bank). Combine this disaffection with a new era of innovation and entrepreneurs, and the result is a make-and-do attitude of social innovation.
Looking at some examples, MTN Nigeria and Nova-Lumos (a utility provider) have collaborated to provide a mobile electricity service for those not connected to the grid. This means that MTN customers can now subscribe to electricity-on-demand via their mobile phones.
In Kenya, startup M-KOPA Solar provides solar home systems to households off the grid via an M-PESA 12-month payment plan; meanwhile, Gambian solar-charging phone kiosks by Rlg Communications are now being rolled out in Ghana, simultaneously acting as sales and repair point for all Rlg products.
Opportunities for tech to step up
Educational challenges in Africa are largely resource-related, providing lots of opportunities for technology to step up. Educational publisher Via Afrika has done just that, by linking up with Cape Town-based Breadline Africa and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory to launch the national Digital Learning Centre initiative. Upcycled shipping containers have been converted into digital learning centers across a number of South African schools, equipped with Android tablet devices that have embedded learning programmes, apps, e-textbooks and more.
Obami Tutor is a new mobile tutoring service that aims to connect mentors and qualified teachers with students via mobile phones; and Beni American University (BAU), Nigeria’s first private online university, encourages students to access their online classes at any time, from any location, and on any device.
Done with studying? There’s Duma Works, a Kenyan platform that hooks up potential employers with suitable applicants, and their SMS-based platform means that even basic mobile-phone users can join.
Informal markets, unbanked citizens
Innovations that facilitate mobile banking, cashless transacting and micro-loaning present another area of opportunity in countries where informal markets and unbanked citizens are the norm. Nomanini, for example, is an electronic device that distributes mobile airtime, takes payments for prepaid utilities, and facilitates mobile money transactions in informal markets. The SA company is now expanding into Mozambique to cater to its unbanked majority.
In the health and wellness category, apps such as Hello Doctor allow Sa users to receive medical advice and health information from registered health professionals via their mobile phone, while WinSenga, a Ugandan mobile phone-based fetal heart-rate monitor, captures fetal heartbeat sounds and sends relevant antenatal information via SMS.
If necessity is the mother of invention on this mother of all continents, then technology is the enabler.
Enabling emotional benefits
And, by enabling innovative solutions to Africa’s everyday challenges, technology is also enabling emotional benefits such as independence and self-assurance — which go way beyond a charged cellphone, easy bill payment or e-textbook.
Strategic consultant Colwyn Elder (@colwynelder) brings a global perspective to the issue of sustainability, having lived and worked in London, Tokyo, Amsterdam and Cape Town. She contributes the monthly “Green Sky Thinking” column on sustainability issues to MarkLives.
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