Mobile App Entrepreneurs Work For The Public Interest Across Africa

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Written by Andrew Friedman

Over the last decade a great deal of focus has been put on the entrepreneurial spirit of this generation of young Africans. It has led to articles with grandiose titles such as “African dawn: Meet the entrepreneurs transforming their continent” and “The Rise of the Pan-African Entrepreneur.”

Analysts have made wide-ranging predictions on the dearth of entrepreneurial expertise coming from the continent, fueled by necessity and increased access to education through massive open-online courses (MOOCs).

Another of the major reasons given for the growth in entrepreneurship is the tremendous expansion of mobile phone technology. In 2000 it was estimated that a mere 2 percent of the continent had mobile phones. In 2009 that number had grown to 25 percent. While that growth seems to be an explosion, it pales in comparison to the four years since.

Recent estimates have mobile phone ownership eclipsing 80% across the continent. In 14 years the percentage of mobile phone users across the African continent has grown 40 fold.

Using this expanding mobile network has been a major key to successful businesses across the continent.

One such success story is M-Pesa, a mobile banking service in Kenya. The service uses mobile telephony to make payments, bypassing ordinary banks or the transactions of hard currency.

Founded less than a decade ago, in 2007, the system is now used in an astounding 70 percernt of Kenya’s transactions. The service has also expanded beyond standard transactions, allowing remittances through a number of money transfer services and micro-lending. M-Pesa has also been launched in a number of other sub-Saharan countries.

While there is no doubt that entrepreneurial ventures are creating unprecedented growth throughout the continent and lifting many out of poverty, it is important to remember that the much lauded entrepreneurial spirit extends to far more than just business.

It is not only entrepreneurs looking to make money that have exploited the growth of mobile technology. Social entrepreneurs, or those looking to use development talent for the public good, have also taken notice.

Zambian Draft Constitution

Among these is Gilbert Mwiinga, a 26 year old mobile software developer from Zambia. As the Zambian government writes a new constitution, Mwiinga recognized an all-too-common problem. It was difficult, either intentionally or not, for the country’s populace to be kept informed on the progress of the Technical Committee on Drafting the Zambian Constitution. There was also no way for ordinary citizens to give input on the process or potential provisions. To remedy this, Mwiinga drew up a mobile app.

The app, simply entitled “Zambian Draft Constitution” aims to both inform and solicit input from Zambians on what will become their state’s highest law. It allows individuals to view the progress of the Technical Committee and give comments on articles.

 

The app was developed through BongoHive, a technology and innovation hub for developers in Zambia. The funding for this important project comes from infoDev, a World Bank project hoping to spur innovation worldwide.

While those of us living in the developed world, with near-complete internet access and a 24 hour news cycle may see this type of government oversight as a commonality, it is a revolutionary idea for countries with limited press freedom and internet access.

While Zambia’s current constitution officially guarantees freedom of speech and privately owned media operates alongside state-owned, Freedom House reports high levels of physical and legal intimidation of journalists. This, according to reports, leads to self-censorship.

Remedying this problem by creating a direct line to the government as a mobile app fits well within the explosion of mobile phone technology across the continent and the limited access to laptops or other means of internet communication.

Mwiinga will not be done at the conclusion of the constitutional drafting process. He says he envisions the app as a sort of “dictionary for the government,” giving citizens access to a wide array of information. This will include information on taxation, tariffs and many other areas where corruption and graft are immensely common across the globe.

As the world lauds the entrepreneurial spirit of young Africans, it is important to remember that not all problems can be solved by business.The explosion in mobile phone technology has given developers a convenient means to combat this problem.

infoDev is not the only major funder that has taken notice of this fundamental truth. The effectiveness of mobile apps in combating chronic problems has also spawned the Apps4Africa program.

This program seeks to give seed money and guidance to app developers continent-wide. Previous winners of the Apps4Africa challenge include apps designed to improve agricultural productivity, make remittances easier, enhance “upstream” transparency in mineral exploitation and crowd-fund startups.

Entrepreneurial skills have helped many throughout the continent lift themselves and others up out of poverty. When paired with modern technology and the rising prevalence of mobile phones, these skills can also solve seemingly intractable problems like accountability, transparency, food security and many others. Luckily, people like Gilbert Mwiinga possess the spirit, skills and desire.

 

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.