African development hubs focus on mobile apps

Increased support of innovation hubs, availability of Web-based public data and increasing adoption of mobile phones have focused the attention of African developers on mobile apps.
Tech companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the last three years have boosted support to innovation hubs, co-working spaces and incubation centers in Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda, among other countries. A list of innovation-hub supporters includes the World Bank, Omidyar Network, Nokia, Google, Samsung and Indigo Trust.
“This growth in mobile apps is clearly being driven by the surge in mobile service adoption in Africa,” said Bill Zimmerman, founder of Activspaces, in innovation hub and tech incubator in Cameroon, in an e-mail interview. “Half of Africa’s one billion population has a mobile phone and  mobiles are becoming ubiquitous.”

“This is forging an enterprise culture in sectors such as agriculture, health care and banking. If you take advertising as one example, we see that mobile ads in Africa have grown 40 per cent in the last three months, according to research by InMobi,” the ad network, Zimmerman said.

African countries have high unemployment rates and the availability of mobile advertising has enabled many developers to explore mobile advertising as one way of sustaining their business to support free apps.

“There are more than 2,000 IT graduates in Kenya every year, mobile development has allowed unemployed youth to pursue economic opportunities,” said John Kieti, manager mLab East Africa, a mobile apps development lab.

Companies like Nokia and Google have supported income generation and job creation by organizing developer activities in collaboration with the incubators and innovation centers.

One of the major ways that global tech companies have helped is by organizing app development contests that have favored products with mass appeal and scalability. This has led developers to take advantage of widely available gadgets. Most contests also look for a way apps can bridge the urban-rural divide.

“In urban areas where handsets running the Android platform are popular — notably, Samsung, HTC and Huawei’s IDEOS — developers develop apps that do innovative leverage on handsets capability, while in rural areas where data is expensive, mobile users can query government data via SMS using a USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Services Data) platform,” Zimmerman added.

In Kenya the government handed developers one of biggest avenues yet of earning income, by providing all government data via a portal. Developers are expected to use the data and provide apps that can help citizens monitor government performance in health, water, power, sanitation and education projects in their localities.

“Kenya’s Open Data is a prime example of an initiative that can foster the growth of an entirely new ecosystem; making government data open and searchable changes the way citizens can access it in important ways,” Zimmerman.

Innovation and incubation labs have been cited as catalysts of tech development in the region because companies willing to hire developers or test apps can visit the hubs and developers have space to hold business meetings.

“Innovation hubs have fostered tech development by providing physical space, bandwidth and facilities for online research, software development and testing as well as bringing peers together to share ideas and resources to advance innovation,” mLab’s Kieti said.

Apart from providing business opportunities, the co-working spaces have been facilitating dialogue between developers, private sector, development organizations and government in effort to find tech solutions to some of the problems facing the continent.

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