Apps made in Africa

The global mobile app market is expected to be worth $27bn in 2013. As internet penetration and mobile phone ownership rises in Africa, the commercial opportunities that the mobile app industry offers in the region is vast. As a result, the continent is witnessing a rush to develop cutting-edge apps, from life-saving technology to locally […]


The global mobile app market is expected to be worth $27bn in 2013. As internet penetration and mobile phone ownership rises in Africa, the commercial opportunities that the mobile app industry offers in the region is vast. As a result, the continent is witnessing a rush to develop cutting-edge apps, from life-saving technology to locally relevant entertainment.

According to Portio Research, consumers in Africa and the Middle East represented 14% of mobile app users in 2012. That is 168m people. Portio Research forecasts that the number of app users will grow by almost 30% each year. Therefore by 2017, Africa’s app users could number over half a billion people.

The explosive growth of Africa’s app scene is driven by higher levels of access to mobile internet. Internet penetration in the Africa region is 15.6% with 167m internet users. Mobile ownership in Africa is high – 90% of South Africans, 82% of Nigerians and almost a quarter of Kenyans have at least one mobile phone, according to the market research firm TNS Global. 

Mobile subscriptions in Africa climbed to 781m in the second quarter of 2013, according to Sony Ericsson. Moreover, the number of Africans owning a smartphone is on the rise. A third of mobile phone owners in South Africa have a smartphone, as do a quarter of Nigerian mobile owners.

African entrepreneurs are coming up with a wide array of cutting-edge apps that solve problems affecting ordinary people in the region. Perhaps the most innovative agricultural app so far is iCow, a Kenyan app which allows farmers to access information relating to their cattle, from the fertility cycles of their cows to the costs of milk production – all by using their mobile phones.

The difference that such an app can ultimately make to the Kenyan economy is considerable – the dairy sector, which employs 1.6m farmers, is worth Ksh 40bn ($464m). The company recently entered a partnership with telecoms giant Safaricom to roll the app out to more people.

Health-related apps are also being developed. A striking one is mPedigree, which allows users to check that medicine they have purchased is not counterfeit, possibly 30% of the African pharmaceuticals market. Bright Simons from mPedigree explains: “When a fake medicine incident occurred in Nigeria, the application of the solution to the problem became obvious.”

Simons says the product is completely innovative, “not only because it is completely original – nothing like it had been achieved before – but because the very design breaks with standard software-as-a-service

“It blends the consumer and the enterprise domains of the problem-solving process, and offers such a seamless bridge across web and mobile interfaces, that companies across the spectrum, from complex multinationals to SMEs, and consumers at all socio-economic levels, can all benefit uniformly. Very few systems can boast of this achievement.”

Entertainment at your fingertips
State-of-the-art apps are also emerging in other, commercial sectors. The South African app Markitshare wants to make the lives of estate agents easier. Markitshare is a multi-tool app which gives estate agents access to unprecedented information at their fingertips. Agents can geolocate where properties are and capture all public data relating to a particular property using a mobile phone.

“A lot of apps and technology relating to the property industry have focused on circumventing real estate agents,” says Ian Ross, the founder of Markitshare. “But people can’t sell their homes. What we wanted to do was create an agent-centric app which would, in turn, enhance the public’s experience of dealing with an agent,” says Ross.

Entertainment-based apps offering local content to Africans, from films to music. They include Afrinolly, which allows MTN Nigeria customers to watch Nollywood films and other African media content. In the world of music, the company Spinlet has developed an app which allows users to stream their favourite African tunes.

The technology works on non-smart phones as well as smartphones ensuring that the product reaches as wide a market as possible. Spinlet claims to be the biggest music distributor in Africa, thanks to its efforts to get even unsigned African music artists to promote their music via the platform. It hopes to reach 50m paying subscribers and 88m downloads by 2016. 

Entrepreneurs are also tapping the games industry for mobile phones. Again, locally relevant content is proving key to their popularity. For example, the Kenyan mobile app game Tough Jungle is steeped in the wildlife and history of East Africa.

The Nigerian gaming firm Maliyo, founded by Hugo Obi, has also enjoyed considerable success. The mission of the firm is to “share the experiences of everyday Africans with a global audience through games”. One of Maliyo’s most popular mobile games is Okada Ride. Set in Lagos, players have to direct their motorcycle through traffic to get to work on time.

South African software company Afroes, founded by Anne Githuku-Shongwe, has also come up with its own games, including Haki, Swahili for justice. Its aim is to “mend the wrongs that tear at the social fabric and in the process defend your rights”, for example, by saving trees from being cut down by illegal loggers.

As a result of the rising number of successful and exciting apps coming out of Africa, conversation about whether certain African countries could try and claim new titles for themselves as ‘app development hubs’ is becoming louder.

Although Kenya and South Africa, with their already formidable reputations in the ICT sector and the high number of new apps being developed, may be obvious choices, techies in other African countries are interested in seizing the mantle for their own nations. One of those is Namibia. “The potential is there, as there is a lot of development in several industries going on in Namibia,” says Gwedha Nandago of MAT, an app development company based in the country.

“Technology-wise, Namibia is adapting quite well and it’s coming up with the younger generation as we are the ones running major projects in construction, technology and so on. I believe we can make it happen regardless of our small population.”

Nigeria hosts the Nigeria App Summit in November under the theme ‘Unleashing the Power of Mobile Application’. The event is expected to attract around 300 people, including app developers, investors and policy makers.

Cute but unloved
However, app developers across Africa say they face a number of stumbling blocks. A major one is scaling up apps. Such was the case for mPedigree. “Scale of adoption is the primary challenge,” says Simons. “One needs multiple agreements with multiple telcos in different countries where different business laws and rules of engagement apply.

This makes it difficult to scale adoption. Which in turn makes it difficult to convince investors of the business case. That ends up starving the business of resources, and leaves many beautiful ideas smouldering on the ash heaps of the ‘cute but unloved’.”

For Markitshare, limited investment at the outset was also a big challenge: “No one is going to invest in an idea,” says Ross from Markitshare. “You have to spend a lot of your own money and your own time. Developing the product costs millions of rand.”

Lack of access to ‘angel investors’ is a common complaint from African app developers, perhaps an inevitable outcome of the high level of risk involved in investing in start-ups, compounded with lingering perceptions that investing in Africa is in itself a risk.

Nonetheless, the story of the financially-strained entrepreneur, at least when he is in the primary stages of developing an app, is not unique to Africa. A VisionMobile report from earlier in the year found that 67% of developers were eking out a living on less that $500 per month, which effectively places them below the poverty line.

The relatively small size of any given African market can also be a limitation. “It’s a challenge to keep yourself alive in terms of the catch,” says Ross from Markitshare. “South Africa is a relatively small economy and a small market in the big scheme of things.”

Ross’s remarks perhaps touch on a fundamental challenge that cuts right through Africa’s app industry: the best-connected African countries are not always the biggest potential markets.

In fact, internet penetration is highest in some of the least-populated African countries. The tiny island of Cape Verde, which has a population of less than 500,000, has an internet penetration level of 32% – the second highest in sub-Saharan Africa after the small island of Mauritius, which has 35% connectivity. Meanwhile, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have the highest populations in Africa after Nigeria, have penetration rates lingering at a paltry 1%.

Africa’s mobile app scene promises to become one of the continent’s most colourful industries. It also offers new opportunities for start-ups, which will only invigorate Africa’s budding entrepreneurial culture. 

But there are considerable challenges. The most successful developers are proving to be those who come up with products that are sharply relevant to African consumers and are willing to ride through the difficulties.

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