3 things Mobile Web East Africa taught us about the state of tech in Africa

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Last week, All Amber hosted the third Mobile Web East Africa conference in Nairobi. The event, which allows key industry players to share ideas, addressed various issues ranging from the mobile film industry, the work of NGOs in Africa, to startup developers demonstrating their wares.

This helped provide greater insight into the mobile market both in East Africa and the rest of the continent; proving that Africa should be considered as one of the most important up-and-coming players in the global mobile market.

The conference established that by 2016, there will be over a billion mobile phones in Africa, of which, 991 million will be feature phones. And because most of Europe and the United States are pre-occupied with developing smart phone applications, Africa has become a unique and open market for mobile developers.

Africa needs trade not aid

University humanities faculties the world over have, for decades, been trying to justify why the arts are an important component of education. Nanjira Sambuli, a musician, mathematician and technologist, provided a refreshing take on this controversial subject on the first day of Mobile Web East Africa. She highlighted that Africa has one the fastest growing mobile technology markets in the world, with Kenya leading the pack, and yet, the continent still contributes less than one percent of creative products in the global market, including technology and design. Part of the problem, according to Sambuli, is that Africa’s creative economy is often fragmented with very few industries working together to help bridge the creative divide.

More worrying though, is that most African governments have failed to note the importance of creative and cultural development in their education programmes. Many countries have chosen to retract funding and no longer run various artistic subjects, with many governments believing that the development of math and science will promote a greater ability to compete in the global market. However, what they seem to have forgotten is that the skills taught by the more creative subjects, like literature, design, dance and visual arts, encourage the originality and critical thinking which help grow scientific discovery, says Sambuli. Unlike its Western counterparts, that promote both creativity and hard science, Africa seems content to forget the arts.

This is changing, believes Sambuli. Some governments, like in Kenya, have realised the negative effects that a lack of artistic programmes has had on the economy. As a result, these governments are now re-investing to help reinvigorate the creative industry. In addition, Sambuli also proposes that the various creative industries in Africa need to trade and work together in order to grow and create the opportunity to export their developments outside of Africa.

Disrupting traditional film

One of the most important industries which appears to be embracing such collaboration is the African film industry. Because Africa only has one movie screen for every six million people, according to CEO of Buni TV and Buni Media, Marie Lora-Mungai, a large number of Africans are now turning to mobile smart devices to watch movies and television. It was noted during Mobile Web East Africa that the introduction of mobile applications has disrupted many aspects of business, and companies are forced to adapt to new technology or risk losing mainstream relevance.

This is no different in film, where digital piracy runs rampant, especially in Africa. But Lora-Mungai insists that Africa’s piracy problem has more to do with lack of access than a malicious intent to undermine copyright. By concentrating on developing an industry in which Africans are able to buy, download and watch film and television on their mobile devices, will help combat issues of piracy as ‘real’ products become more easily available to the vast majority of Africans.

Lora-Mungai acknowledged that there is some scepticism regarding whether individuals would want to watch full length features on such a small screen, but concluded that less than five years ago, many people questioned if watching movies to your laptop was feasible because of its small screen; a screen we now know as one of the most popular. Lora-Mungai also alluded to the ease in which African films could be distributed through mobile devices as many did not have the big budgets to warrant cinematic release. But by concentrating on creating film for mobile consumption, filmmakers are able to distribute their work widely, and more importantly, they are also able to monitor the trends displayed by those who download films, and cater their next production to the desires of their audience.

Get Africa reading

But as we know, most people in Africa only have access to feature phones, and almost one billion people on the continent are illiterate. Mobile technology however, is helping to curb this problem as more than half a million people are accessing free reading material through World Reader, a Java application, made primarily for feature phones.

Again, the issue surrounding screen size was posed, but vice-president of marketing at BiNu Mark Shoebridge highlighted that more than 47% of World Reader users are using phones with 240×320 screens to read books ranging from novels to research material. Unlike smart devices and e-readers, which download an entire book, World Reader allows users to read material stored in the cloud. Users then download small amounts of information as they click through to the next page; ultimately, downloading page by page. And anybody who questions whether this is popular, should note that 70% of female readers read over a thousand screen pages, proving that women are becoming increasingly educated as Africa continues to develop through mobile technology.

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