At the base of all this innovation is the growth of mobile communication.
Most of the innovation involves mobile devices and wireless technology in some way or another. This is because traditional fixed-line telecoms infrastructure made no economic sense across huge, sparsely populated, and sometimes difficult to cross terrains.
Since access to electricity is still patchy, particularly in non-urban areas, battery life and energy-frugal applications are key. This is why so many essential mobile services in Africa are based around the SMS texting platform.
By the end of 2014 more than 600 million people – about 56% of the population – are likely to own a mobile phone, with some researchers estimating penetration could reach 80%. If you are to consider that just 1% owned a mobile in 2000, the rate of growth seems all the more astonishing. There are now more than 35 mobile network operators in Africa busily extending their base station networks to improve coverage.
Foreign companies are waking up to the commercial opportunities this presents.
“Large, multinational consumer goods companies are now looking for ways to reach their customers and employees in Africa through mobile channels, and are viewing South Africa as a gateway to the rest of the continent,” says Tielman Botha, South Africa country lead for Accenture Mobility.
Even though nearly two-thirds of these phones will be accessing 2G and SMS networks rather than the faster 3G and 4G, the range of services they can access is impressive.
Whether it is farmers accessing local market prices for their produce to arm themselves against profiteering middlemen, or nurses, doctors and patients accessing medical monitoring and data services, mobiles and wireless devices are transforming lives.
But it is as a payments platform that the mobile has really blossomed in Africa.
Vodafone and Safaricom’s M-Pesa mobile payments system, launched in 2007, now handles about 1.15 trillion Kenyan Shillings (£7.72bn) a year – that’s 35% of Kenya’s gross domestic product.
This concept sprang from resourceful Africans using and swapping mobile airtime as a form of currency.
M-Pesa is now expanding across Africa, and has also launched in India, Afghanistan and Romania, while other mobile network operators have launched their own mobile banking services.
People can pay for solar lighting, water, groceries and other goods, and also receive credits and person-to-person money transfers via their mobiles.
Such payment systems – and the digital audit trails they leave – are also proving useful for governments tackling tax evasion and corporations combating fraud.
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, about 42% have some form of internet access, according to the country’s Federal Ministry of Communication Technology (FMCT).
But with broadband costing about 30% of a household’s income, and half the country’s 167 million people living in unconnected rural areas, take-up of high-speed services is understandably slow.
Mrs Omobola Johnson, FMCT minister, believes information and communication technology (ICT) is “the fourth pillar of the Nigerian economy, contributing about 7.8% to the country’s GDP”.
From such information Innovation is Africa is just beginning. As internet penetration continues, and More people get Mobile Phones, expect great innovations.