Kenya’s Maasai vets and the Android connection

There is much excitement in the developed world over the strides that have been made in the mobile market during the last couple of years. But it is in the developing world where the changes are having the most significant impact on the lives of ordinary people.

It all began with Apple and its groundbreaking iPhone OS and app store. Blackberry and Nokia swiftly followed with their new mobile technologies, which had the effect of unleashing the huge potential of mobile applications and connecting users to their social networks and the web easily and quickly.

The latest big player on the scene is Google’s Android OS which was swiftly adopted by HTC, who have brought out a range of smartphones which, for the first time, seriously challenge Apple and Nokia’s monopoly on the market.

In the UK
Right now I live in London, where six major mobile networks (3, Virgin Mobile, Vodaphone, 02, Orange, T-Mobile) all support smartphones running on all the different major mobile operating systems at very low costs.

Android in the UK is just another option to choose from. It is not significantly cheaper than any others, and it comes down to personal preference in the end.

In Africa
African consumers do not have this luxury of choice — mobile networks are limited and expensive, and smartphones with mobile web access are well out of the budget range of the majority of the population.

Android has the power to change all this, mainly because Google offers a completely open development environment for the operating system. Anyone can produce an Android device and anyone can develop and distribute Android apps, which leads to more value and freedom of choice for consumers, and a much more innovative and competitive market for businesses who can produce devices at a reduced cost.

The Android operating system is being used in more and more devices, because developers are allowed to freely do with it as they choose. It removes about 15 per cent of the cost of a standard mobile phone by being free.

The lower production costs of Android devices, combined with higher mobile penetration rates compared to low PC penetration rates in Africa mean that mobile is fast becoming the platform for web access on the continent.

In Africa, iPhone and Blackberry users are a certain demographic who can afford the technology and will pay whatever it costs due to the status it brings, while the rest of the population is using entry level feature phones (predominantly Nokia) for simple tasks like texting, calling and possibly basic web browsing.

Google’s Vision
Google announced earlier this year that the company has plans to push its Android mobile software in India and China, and is exploring ways for developers to make more money from applications, and put the software on much cheaper mobile phones, stepping up competition with Apple and Nokia.

Once Google has worked out a profitable, workable system for Android development in these countries, it’s only a matter of time before these lessons are brought to Africa, and cheaper phones manufactured in Asia mean cheaper phones available in other emerging markets.

Google’s Nick Heller commented on Memeburn that “Google’s mission in Africa is to make the internet an integral part of everyday life in Africa and strengthening the internet ecosystem, by increasing its relevance and usefulness, eliminating access barriers for potential users, and developing products that are meaningful for the countries in the region.”

Applications of Android
The potential of giving people living and working in Africa cheaper, mobile access to the web and to social networks is huge, especially when one thinks of the benefits this can have for local researchers, doctors, NGO’s and so on.

One great example of the use of Android technology in Africa comes from East Africa where Maasai vets in the Kajiado district in rural Kenya are using mobile phones to monitor diseases including anthrax and rabies.

The project is led by the charity Vetaid and is backed by Google UK, which has donated 23 G1 Android devices to the surveillance effort. Data relating to more than 86 000 animals from 1 600 farms has already been logged via the mobile phones over July and August. The mobile phones are helping to record how diseases are spreading in order to bolster preventative action, including vaccination campaigns.

The project relies upon the software EpiCollect – a mobile data collection tool which has been loaded onto the devices and was created by researchers from Imperial College London. EpiCollect allows the vets to upload their findings to a central website which plots where diseases are occurring. The phones have also been loaded with a range of educational resources, including photos and videos, for veterinary fieldworkers.

The benefits here are that the vets involved have real time access to information and resources, and communicate far more quickly and easily than before. Similar technology could be used for doctors, or community workers treating the HIV epidemic, or outbreaks of other diseases in rural areas, for example.

Of course a lot also depends on the innovation and dedication of Android application developers, who need a profitable reason to get involved and work on the technology once the phones are there to use.

Africans are highly entrepreneurial and demanding, and will find a way to make it happen.

Catherine Murray


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