Connecting Africa

A new generation of Africans are taking development into their own hands through technological connections. Connection to solar energy for electricity. Connection to mobile networks for fresh ways of doing business. Connection to the internet to reach the digital world. Different strategies with one objective: improving the living conditions of Africans.

Angelo Attanasio / Jerónimo Giorgi

Sub-Saharan Africa is comprised of 831 million people spread over 47 diverse countries with an enormous diversity of culture, languages, size, population and economic development. Yet the entire region is ranked as one of the world's least developed, with illiteracy affecting more than one in three adults.

Unas 340 millones de personas no tienen acceso a agua potable y más de 600 no tienen conexión eléctrica

The 21st century, however, has brought with it some changes through evolving technology. In recent years the mobile ecosystem has been a principal driver of innovation and the phone has become a platform and a window to the rest of the world.

With a penetration rate of 38 percent and more than 330 million unique subscribers, sub-Saharan Africa has become, in the past five years, the world's fastest growing region in terms of subscribers and single connections.

Slowly but surely, Africa is beginning to connect under a new generation of leaders who promote technological innovation to improve the quality of life on the continent.

Do you want to discover more about what "Connecting Africa" means for the continent's technology leaders?

In 2013, the mobile phone industry contributed 5.4 percent to Africa's GDP and employed 2.4 million people. These figures are reflected in new opportunities opening up in the world of digital entrepreneurship throughout different countries.

New hubs, start-up incubators and accelerators are generating applications, services and native technologies across the continent. But what has been the key to the rise of technology development in sub-Saharan Africa?

The development manager for Africa and Middle East of the Internet Society, Michuki Mwangi, believes that developing the right environment is essential so that entrepreneurs and businesspeople encounter good working conditions.

AfricaCom, the biggest tech event in Africa, brings the continent's digital ecosystem leaders together once a year.

In 2014, it was held in Cape Town. More than 9,000 people involved in information and communication technologies (ICT) participated.

"If this is achieved, a boom is the next step. This is what happens when any environment is designed to be competitive, inclusive and attractive enough," says Mwangi. But what is the key to creating a competitive business environment?

In Africa, liberalisation policies in the telecommunications sector came much later than elsewhere in the world. According to Mwangi, this was due to the fact that "the relationship between the public and private sectors was not always properly balanced".

On top of this imbalance, there is also a lack of a strong civil society and robust academic life, which are fundamental to raise the discussion to a higher level.

By the year 2000, all the foundations in Kenya had been laid to allow the government and private sectors to fully commit to the development of new policies.

Evolving regulation was the key to creating an ecosystem that later ushered in Kenya's technological boom. Bitange Ndemo, former permanent secretary of Kenya's ministry of information and communications, played an important role in Kenya's tech transformation.

East Africa is where the greatest technological development is taking place

Bitange Ndemo, former permanent secretary for communications in Kenya

The adoption of technology in Africa is very uneven. Many countries still do not have regulations in place that help markets to develop. "We want to create favourable conditions for a competitive and healthy market," says Sonia Jorge, executive director of A4AI (The Alliance for Affordable Internet).

To achieve this, A4AI works with different countries to mediate between governments and the private sector in order to help establish regulatory reform.

"The mobile industry has transformed the lives of millions of people throughout sub-Saharan Africa."

Anne Bouverot, director-general of GSMA

In 2015, the internet could increase Africa's GDP by $300bn.

Good regulation creates attractive markets for private investment and entrepreneurial development. However, it will take several years to get the reforms in place that reshape the markets.

If you have good regulations in place, you will be guiding your country towards where you imagine

Sonia Jorge, executive director of A4AI (The Alliance for Affordable Internet)

Despite the differences between countries, technological development has gained headway on the African continent. Mobile Money, pay-per-use systems for solar energy services, and mobile applications to boost farmers' productivity are part and parcel of this.

A growing realisation that technology provides a sustainable business model is giving rise to companies with a commercial focus, to the detriment of NGOs or non-profit organisations. "Up until now, some service providers were non-profit, but there has been a transition," says Mwangi.

And while foreigners are undertaking projects involving major investment, Africans are at the forefront of smaller initiatives.

Africa is experimenting, creating resources and attracting investment. We are building an entrepreneurial culture

Michuki Mwangi, development manager for Africa and Middle East Internet Society

In recent years, technology has become increasingly accessible for the majority of the population. This has encouraged an interest in the role that mobile technology has to play in promoting social and economic development in different countries.

Low-cost terminals are increasing in availability; rapid growth has occurred in mobile money services; and mobile services for sectors such as health and agriculture are being created.

Half of the population of Africa is under 15 years of age and more than 250 million of its inhabitants are aged between 15 and 24.

64 percent of the sub-Saharan population live in rural areas, which often lack basic infrastructure.

The 47 sub-Saharan countries are economically, socially and technologically diverse. In this respect, many experts refer to the east and west subregions to distinguish between two main trends: the vanguard and the rearguard.

The southern region is relegated from the debate due to the fact that South Africa, the main regional power, distorts all the variables. Beyond the differences, however, it can be seen how Africa's new generations are taking development into their own hands via technological connections.

Connecting to mobile networks for the development of markets; connecting to solar energy for electricity; and connecting to the internet to reach the digital world... These are different strategies with one objective: improving the living conditions of Africans.

Authors Angelo Attanasio / Jerónimo Giorgi

Development Àlex Poderoso

Music M-Kopa video 'African Mbira with Percussion' (Akashic Records)

Project supported by European Journalism Centre and the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme.

Journalism GrantsEuropean Journalism Centre