Mobile technology presents Africa with an unsurpassed opportunity to address its most stubborn development challenges: health, poverty, hunger and education. That’s the view of Vuyani Jarana, Chief Officer of Vodacom Business, addressing the Trialogue Business in Society Conference in Johannesburg last week (SUBS: Tuesday 16 May 2017).
The two-day annual event (the organisation’s 10th) measures the impact of CSI and aims to strengthen collaborative partnerships between business, civil society and government.
Mr Jarana pointed out that while major strides are being made in Africa’s development, equitable progress remains elusive: for example, while Africa’s burgeoning population has the potential to be a powerful competitive advantage, refugees continue to flee conflict, often with tragic consequences, such as the estimated 400 young immigrants feared dead in the Mediterranean recently.
Of the estimated 800 million undernourished people worldwide, more than 223 million – a third – are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Also, healthcare in the continent is burdened by disease and by resource constraints, and disparities remain in education standards and facilities.
Mr Jarana says that Africa’s uptake of mobile technology could provide a powerful springboard in addressing these crises. Its uptake, he says, has been little less than meteoric: around 17 million Africans had connections in 2000 and that has soared to more than 906 million in 2015. While that expansion is significant in itself, the opportunity it presents for social development can scarcely be overstated.
Mobile technology accelerates the impact of any social development programme while enabling its rollout to the masses cost-effectively. These factors combine to produce a leapfrog effect on development.
This can be illustrated in mobile technology’s exponential effect: from 1878 to 1994, the continent had 4 million telephones, but from 1994 to 2017, that number increased to 50 million phones.
Mr Jarana then spelled out the implications for mobile technology of each of the continent’s most troubled sectors, with healthcare as a primary example. Smartphone apps enable community health-workers and home-based care-workers to visit patients in their homes and collect vital information which can immediately be assimilated centrally.
This reduces the need for patients to visit clinics and hospitals, reducing patient load and possibly treating ailments before admission is required. The data can immediately be analysed in terms of trends, not only for the individual patient, but across population groups, enabling targeted information in areas that need it most. It’s a micro-level approach which, when rolled out on a massive scale, can have a significant impact.
Mr Jarana says the mobile platform enables many sources of data to be aggregated and supplied to the Health Department, for action.
In South Africa alone this approach could have widespread, immediate impact: of the population of more than 54 million, only around 480 000 have their health details logged by the Health Department. The Department envisages a health worker being able to visit every home in the country. The system is already being rolled out in Nigeria and Kenya.
- Education can be accelerated through improved school administration, empowerment of educators, access to digital information and virtual-reality experiments;
- Agriculture can be more efficient and profitable, through access to markets and finance, improving food security and boosting agribusiness as a driver of economic growth; and
- Financial inclusion can be extended through access to mobile banking, person-to-person money transfers, business-to-consumer services and international remittances.
This, says Mr Jarana, can herald the fourth industrial revolution, following mechanisation (water and steam-power), mass production (assembly-lines and electricity), computing and animation. The fourth, cyber-physical and digital systems, could well herald the most significant advances of all for socioeconomic development.