Thursday, January 13, 2011

Part 2: Apps for Africa: Mobile Cloud Computing to Accelerate Innovation

Every cloud has a silver lining, a lining that emits beams of hope onto the continent it traverses. Africa's horizon has seen many clouds that have only passed on to deliver rains to the rest of the world. However, one cloud spread across the African continent, breathing a new hope of life on a part of the world that has always been referred to as a dark continent. That cloud is called the mobile cloud.

Mobile cloud computing is not a new trend in Africa, having first been introduced on the continent by the several mobile network operators. Services such as mobile banking and mobile money transfer have been around for over 3 years, operating on a private cloud computing framework that was tied to each network operator. These services have revolutionized mobile computing, delivering services that had long been a myth to many Africans. The advent of such services has had a far reaching reception pattern, creating trade links between the rural poor. In the biggest part of Africa, banking institutions are fragmented, without a reliable interconnected backbone that can facilitate trade and commercial transactions. And worse still, computer usage is very low in Africa, making it even harder to facilitate such transactions.

However, with the installation of the sea cable that had the first phase connecting the coastal countries to the global broadband infrastructure, fast internet cable is now being extended to the inland countries, providing a more reliable and faster internet link for both desktop and mobile internet users. The high penetration rate of cellular technologies will grow even faster with the adoption of fast internet on the continent. Mobile phones will therefore remain the preferred communication gadget in Africa.

The advent of fast internet will therefore leverage the existing services and provide a wider reaching cloud platform for building and deploying cloud-hosted applications. Even before the fast internet cable spreads to most of Africa, mobile application developers are already building solutions to take advantage of these new developments.

Microfinance Institutions to tap into the cloud:
RedCloud Technologies, the company behind the hugely successful M-PESA money transfer service in Kenya is already completing work on a project that will see micro-finance institutions connect to the M-PESA service, disbursing loans to their clients, improving cash flow management, helping the borrower repay the loan simply and cheaply without queuing in the bank using mobile money transfer, and getting the approved loan and money faster into the hands of the micro-entrepreneur. This project will provide support to customers with low-end phones using SMS technology, and high-end phones/ smart phones using a web-based application. The project will also provide support for loans officers that would like to use the web application option in areas with limited or no network coverage. The loans officer simply saves the loan application information and then posts it to a remote database when they move to places with network coverage.

Strategic partnerships between industry and academia:
Safaricom, Kenya's largest mobile network operator and Strathmore University, a leading private university in Nairobi partnered this year to launch an initiative dubbed the “Safaricom Academy”. The initiative aims at developing young talent to create employment through the development of mobile applications that are relevant to the local Kenyan mobile user. The main goals of the Safaricom academy are:
  • Promote local innovation in developing relevant applications for the Kenyan market.
  • Create an enabling environment for the development of relevant mobile applications.
  • Attracting companies with applications to host them within the Safaricom portal.
This initiative will see more local content and mobile applications developed and hosted on cloud-based marketplaces.

Developer bootcamps:
Many developer initiatives have sprung up in the past two years. In Kenya, iHub (Innovation Hub) seeks to link technologists, innovators and investors. In Uganda, the HiveColab is working with local developers to help them nurture their ideas through provision of workspace, hardware and developer tools. All these are initiatives that have also helped some small companies find seed funding from venture capitalists and big industry players such as Nokia. Virtual City, a Nairobi-based mobility solutions company, received a 1 million dollar award from Nokia after winning a global competition for building innovative mobile applications.

These initiatives are continuing to grow and spread across Africa, showing a positive market response to the adoption of relevant innovative mobile solutions on the continent.

In part 3, we shall focus on the future of the mobile cloud and what it holds for Africa in the next five years.


Post a Comment