• Home grown

    Apps developed in Africa are addressing needs specific to the continent

    Home grown

    According to a 2023 mobile economy report by the GSMA (a non-profit industry organisation that represents mobile network operators worldwide), India and sub-Saharan Africa will account for around half of new mobile subscribers globally from 2022 to 2030.

    Emerging markets in sub-Saharan Africa (as well as Asia Pacific and Latin America) will see the biggest increase in smartphone adoption, helped by increasing affordability. Average selling prices for smartphones continue to decline and initiatives are proving successful in driving uptake, states the report.

    In Zambia, for instance, mobile internet adoption among adults almost doubled from 18% in 2015 to 35% in 2021, while the gender gap in mobile ownership reduced from 13% to 6%. By 2025, GSMA predicts there will be 41 million 5G connections in Africa.

    In tandem with this growth, the innovation of African-developed mobile applications that solve uniquely African problems continue to evolve and proliferate.

    ‘Overseas, everyone talks about innovation. Obviously, innovation is very important, but the phrase we like to use is “pragmatic innovation”, which simply means that we take the context into account,’ says Andrew Rudge, CEO of the Reach Trust, a South Africa-based non-profit focused on low-cost mobile solutions.

    ‘For example, we don’t build applications for iPhones. We find that 90% of our target market don’t have iPhones, so it doesn’t make sense. Neither does making apps that take up a lot of space. Large apps might be beautiful and have really high-definition images and videos, but those won’t be downloaded because of the size. So we focus on producing mobile solutions that are very light on space and can, ideally, run offline once downloaded.’

    The Reach Trust currently offers eight free mobile applications and ‘mobi sites’, six of which fall into the edtech category, aimed at early childhood development, parental support and maths studies, among others.

    One of these, ChildSteps – an app for teachers that supports continuous student assessment – has been rolled out in Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Lesotho, in addition to South Africa. The Reach Trust’s most widely used application, which is actually a zero-rated mobi website (so no need to download it), is called MoveUp, which offers a free CV-writing service that leverages chatbot technology to retrieve information from the applicant and compile a professional CV from their answers.

    ‘We identified a need for this service after research revealed that is costs about ZAR200, on average, to create a CV. If you’re living in poverty, that’s a lot of money. We leveraged the chatbot tech in one of our earlier applications, the ECD app Finding Thabo. MoveUp uses WhatsApp – which virtually everyone already has on their phones – to ask questions and collect info. It’s very light on data and a much more engaging way of creating a CV.’

    The site also connects jobseekers with available jobs, and offers free ‘worker ready’ courses. With funding from Nedbank, MoveUp launched in 2019 and has since created about 700 000 CVs.

    ‘We’ve looked at developing classic apps, but what we’ve found is that there’s been a drop-off in terms of people’s willingness to download apps, largely because although more people have smartphones, the phones tend to have less space on them. They get filled up quickly with, for example, videos shared on WhatsApp,’ he says.

    ‘We find using WhatsApp to be an effective mechanism because 99% of people have already got it on their phone; it makes sense to use what they’re already using rather than trying to get them to download an additional application.’

    One of the fastest-evolving areas of digital development on the continent is healthtech. Unu is an African-developed zero-rated app seeking to reduce employee sick leave by improving access to medical care. Recently launched in the South African market, Unu aims to collaborate with employers to provide accessible, affordable healthcare to employees.

    ‘Unu Health is a hyperconnected patient-centred ecosystem linking healthcare users, healthtech resources, as well as traditional in-person health resources, via a platform that is intuitive and easy-to-use from mobile phones,’ say Tania Joffe, CEO and principal of Unu Health. She adds that on any given day 15% of employees in South Africa are on sick leave – that’s 2.25 million people away from work.

    Average global absenteeism is 3.75 days per working year (1.5%), but South Africans are absent more frequently, between eight and 15 days annually (3.5% to 8%). ‘Coupled with presenteeism – where employees are present at work but limited in their productivity as a result of health issues – absenteeism results in productivity losses and increased staff turnover; a serious challenge for employers. This is exacerbated by the fact that in South Africa, 85% of the population do not have easy access to primary healthcare without taking a day’s leave.

    From education to health and finance, apps are being designed with a specific target market in mind – one with increasing connectivity but restricted data

    ‘For employers this means that affordable, quality primary healthcare is not only a social responsibility but a commercial imperative. Providing access enables early detection and reduced demand for secondary and tertiary care – leading to fewer sick days and improved productivity,’ she says.

    The platform is still in the roll-out phase, with some businesses onboarded, and others still in pilot phase. Employee feedback is, she says, very positive, with the ROI on absenteeism taking a little longer to establish. Joffe and her team are planning to launch into other markets in the next few months, with plans to develop a full pan-African footprint and accelerate transformation of quality primary healthcare access across the continent.

    ‘Healthtech has the potential for increasing healthcare resources in sub-Saharan Africa, without the linear relationship to costs entailed in traditional health resources. Furthermore, if it is configured and designed to meet our emerging market context, it will significantly reduce our disease burden and improve life expectancy and well-being,’ says Joffe. ‘Global investments in healthcare start-ups – accelerated by the pandemic – set a new record in 2020 with a 45% increase in funding key categories centred around telehealth, AI, remote monitoring, digital therapeutics, medical devices and niche verticals. As a platform business model, Unu advocates, curates and orchestrates patient-centric solutions, focused on leveraging these technologies in a way that delivers meaningful, usable healthcare at a price-point that is affordable.’

    One technology that could prove to radically improve access to all mobile applications on the continent is VuluVula, a product of ‘Africa-centric AI research and product lab’ Lelapa AI. Focusing on under-represented languages, VulaVula is more of an underlying technology – rather than an app in the commonly understood sense – that helps to support other technologies (chatbots, WhatsApp engagements and apps, for example), allowing clients to communicate with their customers in their own language. ‘We have started early conversations regarding applications in energy, agriculture, education and health,’ says CEO Pelonomi Moiloa. ‘Our focus for the time being is on Southern Africa, with a desire to expand to the rest of the continent.’

    She points out that Africa is a land of possibility because of its unique challenges. ‘There is no one else who knows our problems like we do, and no one who is better equipped to solve them than us. We have little use for big machines that require vast amounts of data and perpetuate power inequalities more than they address the needs of people on the ground. There is a narrative of Africa that speaks to Africa requiring saving from the West. As my co-founder Vukosi Marivate says, “there is no one coming to save us, but the people we are waiting for are already here”.’

    By Robyn Maclarty
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images, Flickr/Anglo American