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[Column] Patrick Ndegwa: Celebrating startups and digital businesses that are uplifting African communities


The digital economy has opened up many opportunities for global businesses. Large enterprises and small businesses have seen increased profits and enhanced productivity due to digital innovation, but how has this affected the day-to-day life of African citizens?

The positive, far-reaching impact the digital economy has had on various industries has also translated into benefitting and changing the lives of individuals, families, and communities across our continent. From financial inclusion to improved healthcare services and digital skills development, more Africans are gaining access to disruptive digital opportunities that are transforming life as they know it.

Here are some forward-thinking innovators that are leading the way when it comes to bridging the digital divide.

Financial services for all 

Many developing African countries have a high unbanked population who find themselves part of a vicious cycle where the inability to get a loan or make deposits results in more poverty. Social borrowing from friends and family is often the only financial resource available to them.

Yet, this dire situation is changing thanks to nimble FinTech start-ups, challenger banks, and digital advancements in the finance sector. Poised to help underserved communities during a crisis when credit is needed the most, FinTech providers offer critical solutions and products for Africa’s most vulnerable citizens.

For example, digital lender Lulalend is committed to supporting small businesses in South Africa with extended credit and flexible repayments. The company uses proprietary technology and data collection to assess a business’s creditworthiness and issues credit immediately online.

Similarly, Branch built a machine-learning algorithm to determine the creditworthiness of Africans. The app analyses users’ smartphone data, including calls and messages, and banking information to offer loans to millions so far, more than three million people have used the tool, with more than US$350 million in loans being distributed.

California-based Tala serves the Kenyan market with various financing options. The entire lending process from application to distribution is done on an Android smartphone, using behavioural data to provide quick and effortless loans.

A full technology stack for financial service providers, insurance providers, and mobile network operators, Jumo uses advanced data science and machine learning to redefine banking and drive financial inclusion for everyone. Since its creation in 2015, Jumo has served 16 million people and small businesses, disbursing more than US$1 billion in funds.

Digital health solutions  

Just as financial disruptors are leveraging new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), advanced analytics, and cloud platforms, healthcare organisations are also investing in these digital tools to improve decision making, operational performance, and problem solving.

Digital health is booming in Africa, with various telemedicine and e-learning projects being rolled out in several countries, in turn, enhancing public health and disease surveillance, clinical care, and research.

Airtel Tanzania’s ‘Wazazi Nipendeni’ SMS service sends free text messages about infant care to new mothers and pregnant women. By providing reliable health information via SMS, the service works hand-in-hand to support the government’s drive to improve maternal healthcare.

In Nigeria, start-up Ubenwa released a smartphone app that uses the power of AI to diagnose birth asphyxia – a medical condition where a new-born baby receives too little oxygen before, during, or after birth, and a common cause of brain damage and cerebral palsy. The app provides instant feedback based on an infant’s cry.

The Ugandan-government-led initiative mTrac also employs mobile technology, but to track essential commodities and manage scarce resources. Local health workers use the mobile health system to report on medicine stocks.

And to assist those who can’t visit a doctor because of geographical limitations, a telemedicine system in Ghana is set to connect community health workers to medical specialists via 24-hour teleconsultation centres to strengthen healthcare capabilities across the country.

Empowering educational programmes 

Transforming education in Africa starts with making it more relevant to the 21st century, the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), and the future of work. Young Africans need to be equipped with the right skills and knowledge to lead their communities into a brighter tomorrow.

Thankfully, many organisations are prioritising digital education and skills development across the continent. In Mozambique, the UNESCO YouthMobile Initiative educates young girls and boys to create mobile apps for sustainable development, enabling them to become the next generation of digital innovators. At the end of a recent four-month course, 200 students had developed over 50 mobile phone app prototypes that addressed local challenges.

Similarly, the SAP Training and Development Institute aims to close the digital skills gap by developing ICT skills among African youth. The institute offers two programmes – the SAP Skills for Africa Programme and the SAP Dual Study Programme – both which invest in the future workforce and help students kickstart their tech career within the SAP ecosystem.

Microsoft South Africa has partnered with LinkedIn, GitHub and Afrika Tikkun to help empower South Africans to develop the digital skills needed to secure new jobs in a shaky economy. But beyond that, the programme looks to assist job seekers from poorer and more remote communities with additional support. The grant will enable Afrika Tikkun to guide and mentor unemployed youth from disadvantaged backgrounds to compete for jobs in the digital economy.

Connecting the unconnected 

None of these disruptive digital opportunities would be possible without connectivity. Our current digital divide prevents many Africans from accessing these financial services, healthcare solutions, educational programmes, and job opportunities. That’s why empowering our continent with reliable and affordable Internet access should be a top priority for network service providers.

As a proud enabler of ICT in Africa, I believe it is our responsibility to equip our people with affordable connectivity to go further. We need to continue to bring broadband services to low-income, underserviced areas, and I encourage others to consider how they too can contribute to this worthy goal.

Patrick Ndegwa is Business Sales Lead for SEACOM East Africa.

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