This article was taken from the November 2012 issue of Wired magazine. Be the first to read Wired’s articles in print before they’re posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by <span class=”s1″>subscribing online.
Growing up in the US, I didn’t have much first-hand knowledge of technological progress in other countries. I assumed some countries were rich, which meant they had lots of cars, computers and electricity, whereas others were poor, which meant that most people cooked on charcoal, used kerosene for light and went through their lives without making a phone call. I’d developed a (not uncommon) cognitive shortcut: technological progress happens in parallel, so countries are high-tech or low-tech, never a blend of the two.
One trip to sub-Saharan Africa is all it takes to demonstrate the failings of this mental shortcut. Wireless ISPs were common in the Ghanaian capital of Accra before public Wi-Fi nodes were widespread in the US. My hacker friends in Lagos work from taxicabs, logging on to 4G networks. In Kenya, 70 percent of adults use M-Pesa, a phone-based payment system, to buy groceries and send money to family. On much of the African content, telecoms infrastructure is world class, whereas transport, power and other infrastructures lag far behind.
For creative techies across the continent, this infrastructure disparity is an opportunity for innovation. In July, I visited friends in Nairobi, Kenya, at the iHub, a coworking space for the city’s burgeoning software industry. I was researching an idea I’d had on a previous trip to Nigeria — a GSM-enabled smart meter that would allow generator owners to sell power to neighbours. Since Kenya has the best-developed mobile money infrastructure in Africa, I hoped my friends could introduce me to programmers who could help me make this device talk to the M-Pesa system, so that neighbours can pay each other for power using mobile phones.
My friends did better than that, introducing me to a small but lively community of techies harnessing Kenyan telecoms to plug holes in the country’s less developed infrastructure.
Say you’re the sort of Kenyan programmer who spends hours working on your laptop at home. Your arch-nemesis is the frequent power cuts that knock your internet router and wireless hub offline. You’re the target market for the BRCK, a device being prototyped at the iHub that features a battery backup for a wireless router that talks to the GSM data network to provide net access. When the power goes off, BRCK turns on and you can code until your laptop battery gives out.
Most of the innovations that leverage Kenya’s telecoms infrastructure aren’t oriented towards Nairobi techies, but towards the rural poor. M-Kopa is building solar lighting that allows families to power an LED light and charge a phone. What’s innovative about their product is its financial model. Families make a small payment when the system is installed, then pay via M-Pesa to keep it running. Once they’ve made the payments, about the cost of ten weeks’ supply of kerosene, they own it. Because the system can be shut off remotely, M-Kopa bets that it will have to reclaim very few systems.
In more than two dozen villages, mobile phones are giving more Kenyans access to clean drinking water. Thanks to a program called
Lifelink from Danish pump manufacturer Grundfos, villagers use an RFID-tagged fob attached to a plastic jerry can to purchase 20 litres of clean water for two Kenyan shillings (about 2p). They “fill” the RFID fob by making payments via M-Pesa.
For countries such as Kenya to emerge as economic powerhouses, they need better infrastructure: roads, ports, smart grids and power plants. Infrastructure is expensive, and takes a long time to build. In the meantime, hackers are building “grassroots infrastructure”, using the mobile-phone system to build solutions that are ready for market.
The future of infrastructure in emerging nations is a mix of the planning needed to build mass-transit systems and 500-megawatt power plants, and the grassroots innovation that’s allowed these countries to expand and grow thus far. What excites me most is not that farmers can obtain crop prices and mothers can call doctors.
It’s that there’s a vast, powerful infrastructure that can be repurposed and hacked. Some of the most creative people on the continent are solving problems by using technologies in ways their creators had never expected. I think that’s as likely to help Africa rise than any World Bank-funded highway.
Ethan Zuckerman is principal research scientist at the Media Lab