News from Africa: How the Cell Phone has Revolutionized African Countries – In 2009, businessman Femi Akinde needed to travel quickly across Nigeria. Without immediate access to the internet, it took him a day to book a plane ticket. Finding a number to make a phone reservation took time; connecting – on erratic phone lines – even longer; and bank forms had to be filled in to withdraw money for paying.
“The fact that something that could have taken less than 10 minutes [online] took a torturous whole day got me thinking: if something like an airline ticket was this difficult to procure, how much worse is it down the economic food chain?” he explained.
Akinde, who had worked with US telecoms companies, saw a solution in mobile phones. He came up with SlimTrader, a service that allows customers to use their phones to get information and availability, and to pay for services ranging from airplane tickets to bags of fertiliser.
While in many parts of the world, such a service would use the internet, this option was not available for a large majority of Nigerians using basic feature phones. Instead, SlimTrader can be used entirely by text message. “We took the idea from what it could be in the western world to what it really has to be in the developing world. We went a step further, and said let’s make SlimTrader useable on any phone,” he said.
Using text messaging for technological advances makes sense in a continent where hi-tech sits cheek-by-jowl with fading technology. Days before it officially began selling in western stores, bootlegged copies of the latestiPhone were available from Lagos market vendors – many of whom were using phones with only basic internet. And while Google’s Lagos office has helped put some 25,000 businesses online in the past year, it is also making its mighty search engine available through the humble text message in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana.
Innovations like SlimTrader are a small part of a new technological revolution in sub-Saharan Africa. In west Africa, which has lagged behind its eastern neighbours, a new breed of home-grown entrepreneurs is adapting technology to local challenges.