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Mobile Technology In Africa: Creating the Model Cities of the 21st Century

Author: Kappie Farrington
Published Date: 27 July 2015

We live in a moment of unprecedented urbanization across the globe. On nearly every continent, in nearly every country, the world’s growing population is migrating towards cities at a blistering pace. The pressures this puts on existing urban infrastructure is enormous.

Few places feel this trend more acutely than the cities of sub-saharan Africa, whose existing infrastructure–– much of which was conceived in colonial times––can’t keep pace with a rapidly increasing population size.

Because many African governments’ development plans did not adequately account for urbanization (or if it did, it couldn’t keep up), growth in cities has been unequal and haphazard. Slums pop up in place of sustainable housing. Extreme congestion clogs roads and slows the economy.

These common features of African urbanization lead to the overwhelming realization that reliance on traditional, Western models of urban planning and containment has resulted in a catastrophic failure to manage the city growth in a way that secures social, or spatial, justice (a constant refrain in the UN Habitat’s series of State of the Cities reports).Fortunately, we also live in a time in which the wave of innovation across the African continent is mounting to unseen heights, powered by democratizing technologies and rising demand for access to high-quality infrastructure. New mobile technologies, in particular, have distributed the power to create solutions to problems of basic necessity. With a cell phone in hand, citizens of African cities are adapting and evolving their resources to meet the challenges of urbanization, without waiting for central planning to keep up.

As the UN Habitat State of African Cities Reports: “Africa has the opportunity to take a global lead in innovations towards greener, healthier and more sustainable urban societies.” Together, innovation and access paint a hopeful picture of urban development in Africa that could have tremendous impact across the globe.


We often think of cities as engineered organisms. Famous urban planners like New York’s Robert Moses or Russia’s 18th-century Agustin de Betancourt or the legendary Le Corbusier all confirm our vision of the city as a man-made invention.

However, our contemporary cities are facing growth and change at previously unknown rates. The speed at which their urbanscapes are morphing calls into question whether the 19th and 20th century Western model of planning and centralized control remains viable in today’s world. These traditional urban approaches were designed to impose order and control into a chaotic environment. But our landscape has changed. Today, the standard experience of the 21st century may be a semi-constant state of change, and cities must learn to embrace uncertainty, rather than attempt to design it away. This is particularly true for many developing countries in Africa.

As a result, our more contemporary understanding of urban planning prizes the pathways, trails, and inroads that people create without a visionary planner––flattening the hierarchy of top-down design into a populist understanding of how webehave in cities. We call this the emerging model.


But, understanding emergent behavior is only one step in a city’s survival. For a city to truly thrive in a world of rapid change, a city must constantly be capable of evolution. A city that is learning, adapting, and responsive will be a more resilient one. How can a city practice adaptive behavior?

Major cities developing in sub-saharan Africa provide a compelling case study. Over a quarter of the 100 fastest-growing cities in the world are now in Africa. Predictions of global super-urbanization indicate that 50-percent of Africa’s population will live in cities by 2050. Already, there are more African urbanites than anywhere else in the world, save for Asia.

Concurrently, the economic context of subsaharan Africa has changed dramatically over the past 25 years, with an upward trajectory that shows little sign of slowing. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are growing at a phenomenal clip. Nigeria’s economy grew by 6.7 percent in 2012. Mozambique’s grew by 7.4 percent, Ghana’s by 7.9 percent. Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole is predicted to reach 5.2 percent this year. Investment funds are starting up by the dozen and seeking out local entrepreneurs to lead them.

In 2011, roughly 60 million African households earned at least $3,000 a year. By next year, more than 100 million households will make that much. Trade between Africa and the rest of the world has increased by 200 percent since 2000. Since 1996, the poverty rate has fallen by 1 percent per year. Life expectancies are shooting up.

The concurrent factors of population increase and economic growth have coupled to produce a terrain ripe for change. The economic growth has begun to create an active middle class of educated African urbanites who are using their increased purchasing power to drive economic solutions to their city’s problems. This generation moves quickly and, rather than seeing change as a source of fear, recognizes it as the mother of invention.


The confluence of economic growth, urbanization and technological innovation has created a rising middle class primed for digital fluency. In areas that are untouched by networked landlines or rigorous public planning (like cities’ informal housing), cellular technologies––powered by remote towers or satellites––can unite many without the hardwired infrastructure. This individual approach to technology transcends the systemic challenges that daunt many cities in Africa: lack of centralized governmental support and resources, high unemployment rates and a growing wealth disparity. Mobile phone technology has flattened this experience, enabling peer-to-peer solutions to emerge to urban problems, without the need for complete reliance on larger, centralized governance.     

This forward technological progression shows no sign of slowing down. According to a May 2014 Gallup poll, 65-percent of households in sub-Saharan African owned at least one mobile phone. In urban areas, that statistic jumps to 80-percent ownership per household. Africa has been the fastest continent in the world to adopt mobile technology and it is anticipated that 5.6 billion mobile subscribers will be active by 2019.

What is truly inspiring about this communications explosion is its means of expansion. It is not a government mandate or single corporation inciting change––the change is quite literally in the hands of the people. As Portland Quarterly notes: “The speed of the revolution has been so great that the fixed and expensive networks of the developed world will never be needed. This simple technology has become a great social equalizer. For rich or poor, in cities or in villages, the mobile phone has become the basic means of communication.”


So how are people in African cities taking advantage the power of technology to develop solutions to urban challenges? What are the key players in this expanded field? Unlike the Western world where mobile technological developments are being driven by secondary ‘needs’ like grocery delivery, car services or dating apps, mobile technologies in Africa are being developed to service the daily necessities of urban life. This approach makes the most out of crowdsourced data and person-to-person connection to affect the type of change that historically has only been feasible via large-scale, government-driven intervention.

Mobile technology has begun to unlock a more adaptive model of solving urban problems.  By providing real-time access to data and resources, mobile phones are empowering individuals to meet their needs in the moment, with solutions that are tailored to the context in which the need arises. The quickly-evolving nature of urbanizing environments demands a responsive approach to problem-solving; in the face of uncertainty and change, mobile phones are proving to be more responsive a tool than a centralized, planned approach to could ever provide.

What’s more, the same principle of scarcity that is often portrayed as a challenge is now turning Africa into a gobal center of innovation. Lean Thinking (or the operating model of doing more with less) has become the central premise to the development of technology in the service of public planning, resource sharing and economic development. Although they often have fewer resources, many African companies are proving that you can have competitive outcomes despite scarcity. In fact, they’re showing that you can get these or better outcomes in a more nimble and efficient way. Below are a few programs that have make the most of technology to impact the greater good.


According to one MIT study, M-PESA is the fastest growing mobile phone banking system in the developing world with close to 17 million accounts registered in Kenya alone. This microfinancing service started in 2007 in Kenya and Tanzania and has since expanded its reach into Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and across Africa. M-PESA is a branchless banking service that functions by allowing users to deposit money to an account stored on their cell phones and send money to other people or vendors via a PIN-secured SMS text message. Funds can also be withdrawn for regular local currency.

This system has replaced formal banking systems for many, eliminating the need for lengthy commutes to banking centers in traffic-clogged and sprawling cities and, surprisingly, produced a sharp decrease in crime reported. Because there is less cash overall being carried in pocket, the number of attacks and personal robberies have decreased since the launch of M-PESA. What’s more, because of fines associated with banking in Kenya, the Economist has reported that Kenyan households that have adopted M-PESA as their primary baking system have enjoyed a 5- to 30-percent increase in income.

There is also a political benefit to the system. Political turmoil has historically had the potential to affect banking systems in Kenya. Many have adopted the M-PESA system as a safeguard against the fluctuation or uncertainty of centralized banking. As the Economist has reported, “M-PESA was used to transfer money to people trapped in Nairobi's slums at the time, and some Kenyans regarded M-PESA as a safer place to store their money than the banks, which were entangled in ethnic disputes.” This effect has been further reinforced as more people adopt the system, giving additional credence to a decentralized banking system.

From a business perspective, when we take a closer look, the M-PESA model starts to resemble many of the practices of lean startups. Everywhere we turn, whether its in developing countries or Silicon Valley, Lean Thinking is driving the most significant innovations of our time. In a world where nothing can be taken for granted or wasted, lean economies––like those found in African urban centers––translate minimal resources into maximum social impact. Powered by what Dayo Olopade calls “kanju,” or the ““the specific creativity born from African difficulty,” services like M-PESA are proving that technologies can help individuals overcome the (transportation, policing, banking) limitations of rapidly urbanizing environments. If necessity is the mother of invention, these lean economies have a distinct advantage––and they are making the most of technology.


Making use of the M-PESA microfinancing system, M-KOPA fulfills a pressing need for many Africans: light. The energy infrastructure of many African cities has struggled to keep pace with population growth. Many urban Africans experience unreliable electricity, or live entirely off the grid of conventional energy systems. M-KOPA provides pay-as-you-go solar powered light that uses microfinancing systems like M-PESA to purchase light power in real time via text message. The proprietary SIM card solar panel attachment and cloud platform, M-KOPAnet, allows the company to monitor payment against usage and processes over 10,000 mobile payments each day.

Since launching in 2012, M-KOPA has reached over 150,000 homes in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The effect of this system is staggering. Not only does the service provide essential light to those who would otherwise go without, but the company has also generated hundreds of jobs in areas of Africa that are affected by high rates of unemployment. M-KOPA also eliminates excessive energy consumption by allowing users to purchase only what they need, keeping the system lean and the overall impact on the earth to a minimum. Coupled with other programs like SOP Notify, a SMS text alert system that notifies people in Nigeria when there’s a power outage, we can begin to see the compelling effects of taking control of energy usage, loss and production on a one-to-one level.


In Nigeria, identity theft is a growing problem. Porous infrastructure coupled with low literacy rates have created an environment where it is far too easy to adopt another’s vital information and use it to deplete bank accounts, as well as committing other forms of fraud. In response to this growing imperative, banks across Nigeria are beginning to collect biometric data points––such as fingerprinting and facial recognition software––to be used along with an individual’s Bank Verification Number to combat identity theft, restore the people’s faith in organized banking structures and encourage an inclusive spirit into the banking system.

There is also hope that this growing biometric technology will aid in the effort against crime and diminish militant extremist groups’ ability to infiltrate into the public sphere. There is are limited public records on the population of Nigeria, the Telegraph reports, and the addition of a biometric census could serve to give a broader understanding of the country’s constituents––and how to help them.


Africa’s growing urban population has grown faster than official housing units, roadways, and zoning regulations can accomodate. Informal settlements with inadequate transportation infrastructure have made commuting within cities a time-intensive daily challenge for millions. Public transportation systems, when working, can be unreliable and difficult to understand. RoadPreppers in Lagos is a mobile app that offers step by step instructions on how to get around using public transport––with a translation feature that allows visitors from other countries to travel like a local.

Adding complexity, many homes and business in countries like Ghana operate without addresses on public record, making travel exceedingly difficult. SnooCode, a free mobile app, gives unique geolocation based codes to users so that even those without a government recognized address can still be found.

And when personal transportation is required, Ma3Route and Mellow Cabs are Africa’s answer to their grassroots Western dopplegangers Waze and Uber, respectively. Ma3Route uses crowd-sourced data to create driving reports in Kenya while Cape Town-based Mellow Cabs is an on-demand electric taxi service that can be hailed using the company’s app or website.


Across Africa, many are making use of the social capability of mobile technology to create grassroots emergency response systems. Organizations like SPOTTM in South Africa and iPolice in Nigeria function as community reporting sites, allowing users to submit crime reports, security infractions and neighborhood watch tips via mobile app. This allows for an up to the minute picture of crime in any given area, as well as the possibility for public accountability and crime prevention.

When emergency situations do occur, some mobile technologies are making it easier to stay in touch with or find loved ones. On the website Ping, families, teams and loved ones can stay in touch with one another during times of duress by responding to a single question on their phones: are you okay? The response is sent back across their network. As these smaller social circles intersect, a larger picture is constructed of the health and well being of an area.

In Nigeria, E-Alert communicates to your designated network when you are not okay. When the user touches the red panic button in this mobile app, E-Alert sends out an emergency SMS and email message to your selected contacts with your GPS location every 45 seconds until you shut it down.


From social security to new forms of currency, across Africa we are seeing mobile technology benefit developing cities in surprising ways. Or, perhaps it is not so surprising after all. Mobile technology was designed to be connecting, responsive and lean––some of the same traits that inherently exist for developing economies. These responsive technologies are not developing out of convenience as they are in the Western world––they are developing to meet necessities that are otherwise lacking: public infrastructure, trustworthy baking systems, first emergency response and basic utilities. These technologies are spreading because they need to, and, as a result are solving some of the the urban world’s biggest challenges with some of the most lightweight and technologically innovative solutions. By bypassing some of the limitations of centralized planning, mobile technologies––coupled with entrepreneurial ingenuity––are making African cities the torchbearers and models for 21st century urbanity.