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  • Writer's pictureTimothy Laku

Digitalization in Africa: A Focus on Mobile Technology & Digital Healthcare

POM Limburg recently invited me as a keynote speaker to talk about the use of mobile technologies in Africa. POM Limburg is an economic accelerator commissioned by the provincial government of Flanders in Belgium. The POM team is working on innovative projects to make Limburg more digital, lower carbon, and scalable.

  • Africa is a growing continent and an important source of inspiration

  • The development of the market, the young population and numerous tech incubators give a boost to creativity and innovation

  • Now is the time to connect with Africa.

The Evolution of Digitalization in Africa

Africa is a continent of about 1.38 billion people living in 54 countries. Over 60% of the population are under the age of 25. UN predicts that by 2050 the population will double to 2.4 billion.

When it comes to technology adoption, Africa has been lagging behind the rest of the world by about ten years. However, this adoption gap has closed. Today, Africa is now at par with the rest of the world as far as embracing technology.

For example, commercial mobile 5G services have already been launched in South Africa, with trials in Nigeria and Gabon in West Africa and Uganda and Kenya in East Africa (GSMA report). In addition, many supply chain and logistics businesses are working with intelligent IoT devices leveraging the power of the internet, unlocking more computing power, accuracy, convenience, speed, and automation.

Digitalization is transforming African economies in four significant ways: retail payment systems, financial inclusion, sustainable business models, and revenue administration. The dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is already being felt in Africa.

Thriving businesses on the continent are leveraging digital technologies to provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities through business process transformation and optimisation.

It is not only businesses that are benefiting from digitalization. In a report by Brookings Institute, the researchers predict that digital technology will help leapfrog education and agriculture in Africa and close the 100 years gap.

Digitalization is going to be a game-changer in improving agricultural productivity and resilience. In a recent thought piece, it is clear that AgriTech is the future of smallholder farming. Its most significant impact will be felt across value chains.

AgriTech could vastly lead to precision farming and create an efficient supply chain, impacting the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers across Africa. The World Bank, for example, is already incorporating precision technology into its agriculture projects around Africa.

Mobile technology has by far been the most significant catalyst of innovation on the continent. According to a recent GSMA Mobile Economy Report report, there were about 420 million mobile subscribers five years ago. In 2020, the number of SIM connections registered was about 942 million. Today, eight out of ten people in Africa own a cell phone.

Mobile Money in Africa: a Game Changer for Financial Inclusion

One of the ways mobile technology has revolutionised financial services on the continent is through Mobile Money. As a solution for peer-to-peer money transfer, the mobile money story started in Kenya in 2007 when Safaricom launched M-Pesa.

The majority of rural Africa is still unbanked. The reason is that banks have majorly focused on the urban and peri-urban demographic. However, Mobile Money has enabled the unbanked to access fast and timely financial services anywhere, at any time.

A farmer in rural Uganda, using his phone, can pay school fees for his children from the comfort of his home. A vendor in a market in Kenya can receive money for her fruits and vegetables directly from her customers. A shopkeeper in Abuja can pay for a consignment of goods he just ordered from his supplier without leaving his shop. Faster payments improve service delivery and increase service uptake.

Mobile Money is slowly replacing traditional banking. Today, there are over 1.2 billion registered mobile money accounts. In addition, over two billion dollars are processed daily by the mobile money industry.

The convenience of Mobile Money has lowered cash management costs and admin burden related to cash. Overall, Mobile Money transactions have facilitated accountability, reduced leakages, and increased physical security.

According to the State of The Industry Report on Mobile Money 2021, interoperability will bring more people into the formal economy, accelerating the shift to digital and building resilience. Mobile Money will be integrated into digital payment workflows and become an integral part of every digital payment capability in the coming years.

Mobile-First in Africa: how Mobile Phones are Changing Business Models

The other way that mobile technology has revolutionised innovation on the continent is through the mobile-first mindset. As a result, startups and scale-up businesses in Africa are designing their business models from a mobile-first perspective.

For example, a supermarket in Zambia will forgo opening up a physical store. Instead, they will build a mobile app from where their customers will place orders. Likewise, a supplier in Ghana will leverage USSD mobile application as their primary touchpoint for farmers to order seeds and fertiliser.

Regardless of the sector, we see more startups and scale-ups leveraging mobile technology as a primary channel through which their customers can access goods and services and process payment.

Digital Healthcare in Africa: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Another area where mobile technology has revolutionised innovation on the continent is health care. As of last year, there were over two hundred health tech startups operating in Africa. Thanks to the proliferation of mobile technology, digital healthcare is booming, and investment in e-health startups continues to grow. According to a recent Disrupt Africa report, e-health startups raised over 150 million US$ in 2020 alone.

According to a recent Briter Bridges' report on Innovating Healthcare Service Provision in Africa, many African economies have experienced a surge in the availability of digital technology to address local healthcare-related challenges – partly propelled by the inadequacy of public service provision, as well as structural gaps including ill-equipped public services, low doctor-to-population ratio, and logistical inefficiencies.

There are considerable gaps in the healthcare system in Africa. For example, a recent report by the International Journal of General Medicine identified the following gaps: limited access to essential medicines, lack of robust health information systems, inadequate financing, insufficient health workforce, poor service delivery, and weak policy leadership.

As a result of these gaps, Africa sees an increase in the availability of digital technologies through e-health businesses.

Below are some prominent names already creating a significant impact on the continent offering various products and services in the healthcare space:

  • ClinicMaster is an integrated new generation healthcare information management and medical billing software.

  • MScan develops low-cost mobile ultrasound devices for use in low- and middle-income countries.

  • Rocket Health offers 24/7 doctor consultations, lab sample pick-ups & tests, pharmacy deliveries and clinic appointments.

  • Amani by StrongMinds is an automated WhatsApp chatbot that provides information, advice, and understanding to individuals struggling with complicated feelings, providing a pathway to be screened and eventually treated for depression.

  • ICEA (Integrated Clinic Enterprise Application) is a real-time, provider-based electronic medical record (EMR) developed by the Infectious Diseases Institute I Uganda to aid health care providers working in HIV programs in resource-limited settings for clinic management and reporting.

  • Medbit is a digital platform that connects doctors and patients to improve healthcare throughout Kenya and Africa.

  • DawaSwift is an online marketplace for ordering medicine from the best pharmacies in Kenya and getting the medicine delivered home.

  • Redbird is a health tech company offering convenient health monitoring for patients with chronic diseases.

  • Helium Health is a digital medical record for Africa's premier hospitals.

  • Clinido helps in finding and booking appropriate healthcare providers in Egypt.

  • Nawah Scientific is a core hub of advanced research facilities offering online and on-demand scientific services

  • Dr CADx is a computer-aided diagnostic system that helps doctors diagnose medical images accurately at a low cost.

  • Hello Doctor is a doctor on call, anytime, anywhere, for anyone.

  • RecoMed is a platform to find and book health appointments 24/7 for free

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the discourse regarding Africa's indigenous healthcare capability, notably in terms of vaccines and availability of crucial supplies, serving as a stimulus for both the corporate and public sectors to implement digitally enabled solutions.

The government of Nigeria has been utilising e-health technologies to aid in the fight against the epidemic. With the assistance of e-Health Africa, the government has established a system that informs patients who take a virus test via an automated text message with the findings and has utilised the platform for contact tracing. This approach assists in alleviating strain on an already overburdened healthcare system.

At the policy level, many government's are realising that the sooner they take action, the better.

For example, Uganda's government has launched a national e-health policy, recognising the promise of information and communication technology (ICT) in healthcare delivery. In addition, the government has spoken with stakeholders to ensure that a national e-health policy is informed and consistent with worldwide best practices.

More must be done collaboratively to tackle infrastructural challenges such as electricity, local capacity, and internet access to realise digital healthcare's full potential.

The Future of Digitalization in Africa

Historically, African economies were heavily reliant on agriculture and available natural resources. Today, these economies, are diversifying beyond commodities. As an example, the rate at which digital innovation is being adopted, and the scale with which it is occurring across the continent is unprecedented.

While the rest of the world's population is aging, Africa has a young population, indicating that even as the global workforce shrinks, Africa's workforce would be approximately 1.1 billion, surpassing China and India by 2025.

According to McKinsey, household consumption in Africa will exceed $2.1 trillion by 2025, while business spending will reach $3.5 trillion, giving a total of $5.6 trillion in business and investment opportunities.

According to the World Economic Forum, Africans in the middle class are young, educated, brand-conscious, and savvy consumers, which indicates that multinational merchants and consumer brands may leverage these wants and tastes and participate in the continent.

Jack Ma once said that "Today's Africa is the China of 20 years ago!" and he is right. Indeed, Africa is only getting started. The next decade will be exciting.

The time to connect with Africa is now!

This article was first published on the POM Limburg website.



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