In a loft with high windows, wooden floors and long tables, young women with their hair in small braids and men in colorful T-shirts sit bent over their laptops. They are students, bloggers, web designers and programmers. Their office, called iHub, could be somewhere in tech-obsessed California, but is actually located in a place few people associate with cutting-edge tech culture -- Nairobi.
People are gathering at iHub to work toward the future of the Internet in Africa, a future which is not only looking increasingly rosy, but has the potential to profoundly change the continent's infrastructure, economy and even politics.
One of the people working at iHub is Wesley Kirinya, 30, a dot-com businessman who dropped out of med school three years ago to found his company, Leti Games. He now has six employees around Africa, and rents a one-and-a-half-meter (five-foot) table in front of the windows here at iHub, just a few steps away from the building's café. This is his headquarters while Leti Games is in its start-up phase.
When Kirinya drops into the iHub café to buy a latté, he pays his bill of 100 Kenyan shillings (€0.85 or $1.16) by text message. First he types in the café's telephone number and enters a PIN. Then he hits "send" and the transaction is complete.
This payment system is known as M-Pesa. The "M" stands for "mobile" and "pesa" means "money" in the local language of Swahili. M-Pesa turns a mobile phone into a bank account, credit card and wallet all in one. Invented in Kenya, the system is now used in nearly all developing nations. These days, a third of Kenya's economy is conducted via M-Pesa -- at a time when, in Europe, a few major cities are just starting to experiment with the possibility of paying for parking via mobile phone.
'We Feel Very Global'
As for Kirinya, he programs games for mobile phones. His latest project is called "Ananse" and features the spider-god of the same name, a figure from Ghanaian legend, battling unscrupulous politicians. "We've beamed Ananse into the present day," Kirinya explains. The game hit the market in Ghana and Kenya in October and has since been downloaded over 100,000 times. Starting in January, Ananse should start bringing in money, when Kirinya starts charging $1 per download. Updates cost extra, and payment, of course, is via M-Pesa.
In the process, Kirinya has made a name for himself, and not only in Africa. In March, he and his colleagues flew to San Francisco for a computer games fair. "They took us Africans absolutely seriously," he says. "We suddenly feel very global. Finally, we belong."
Game designers in the United States, of course, are much more advanced technically, Kirinya says, with working conditions he can only dream of. "But we could tell they appreciated what we're able to create with the resources we have," he says. The low-tech games Kirinya develops for the African market are a good example. The Americans he met, he says, were reminded a bit of their own pioneering days.
Kirinya works on his career at iHub 12 hours a day, sometimes longer, at which point his wife gets angry and the children complain. But Kirinya has big dreams -- and sees Africa's tremendous online potential. His next idea is to develop an African news portal for mobile phones.
Everyone here at iHub has a similar story. The center was created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to serve as an incubator for the future-oriented ideas of Kenya's computer elite. Omidyar outfitted the building, a former shopping center, with affordable workspaces and Internet cafés in 2007.
The project, a kind of digital development aid, is modeled on India, where the IT boom that began in the 1980s has turned that developing country into an up-and-coming tech nation where millions of people now develop software, program games and work in call centers. In Kenya, the information and communications sector already accounts for more than 5 percent of the country's economic performance. Global corporations such as Google, Microsoft, IBM and Cisco have also recognized Africa's potential and taken up offices close to iHub. These days, Ngong Road, where iHub is located, is known locally as Silicon Savannah.
And that's not a joke but a promise. Sub-Saharan Africa is the world's fastest growing market for mobile phones, tablets and laptops. There are more SIM cards in use here than in North America. And with nearly half the continent's population of 900 million people under the age of 15, experts estimate there will be over 1 billion additional mobile phone users here by 2050.
Mobile Phones Where Governments Fail
In the space of barely 10 years, mobile phones and the Internet have changed many Africans' daily life more dramatically than any other societal shift since African nations won their independence from former colonial powers. During the independence era, Africans hoped to finally close the gap between themselves and the rest of the world. Today, after 50 years of hunger, war and corruption, that goal seems to be in reach - thanks largely to smartphones, which have achieved something most governments here have failed to do, by making up for the lack of infrastructure, the greatest obstacle to development.
Where there are mobile phones, there is less need to lay cables for conventional landline telephones. There is also less need to build highways, clinics and schools, because mobile phones are all these things in one -- as well as bank, weather station, doctor's office, atlas, compass, textbook, radio and TV station. Africans can now send money across the jungle or steppe with the click of a button, merchants can compare prices, and farmers can access weather data relevant to their harvests or get advice from veterinarians. Bloggers and social media users also function as a substitute for a free press, keeping watch over those in power. All that's needed to do all this are mobile phone antennas, which are built by companies, not governments.
Africa's Digital Visionary
"It's now easier, technically speaking, to supply a village with Internet access than with clean water," says Mo Ibrahim, a man who has done more than almost any other person for Africa's digital revolution. Time magazine named the Sudanese businessman one of the most influential people of our time.
When some of the world's most powerful people meet, that tends to include Ibrahim. Last June, for example, he convened with the singer Bono, International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in New York to discuss the fight against HIV, on a panel moderated by former US President Bill Clinton.
Ibrahim founded his company Celtel, one of the first mobile phone providers in Africa, in 1998. Despite having had a successful career as an engineer at British Telecom and being the founder of an IT consulting firm in London, Ibrahim wasn't satisfied. "I never entirely became a European," he says. "Africa is simply part of me." So he began soliciting venture capital from his colleagues in the telecommunications industry to invest in Africa.
At the time, the sole advantage of being in Africa was that mobile communications licenses that went for billions in Europe and the US were available there for a couple million, because no one wanted them -- except Mo Ibrahim.
In the years that followed, Celtel expanded into 13 countries, with 24 million people using the company's network, and 5,000 employees. When Ibrahim sold Celtel to Kuwaiti mobile communications provider MTC in 2005, he received $3.4 billion.
A Subdued Mogul
Ibrahim, the son of a Nubian cotton merchant, catapulted Africa into the information age. "Africa is the future," he says. "We're finally part of the global process."
He says this in Marrakech, where he is guest of honor at an African Development Bank conference. The topic of his presentation today is the rule of law and transparency as prerequisites for progress in Africa. Ibrahim says he built up Celtel without paying any bribes.
The Sudanese billionaire walks the halls of the conference hotel alone. He doesn't feel the need for an entourage, as so many other African dignitaries do. He doesn't hold court and he doesn't summon to him those who wish to speak with him. Instead, he comes to the hotel's reception to collect them personally. Even the finance minister of Madagascar patiently waits his turn.
Ibrahim doesn't look like a brash businessman, but rather like someone who weighs his words carefully, an intellectual. He wears round glasses and understated suits -- only the embroidered initials on them betray the work of a custom tailor. His occasionally ringing mobile phone is a surprisingly old Samsung model. All this hardly seems to fit a man who maintains homes in London and Monaco, as well as a sailing yacht moored in Monte Carlo. He's very rarely at home, Ibrahim says. Most of his time is spent traveling the world, promoting Africa's causes. His wife, a radiologist, is used to it. Their son and daughter are grown.
Digital Tools for Remaking Africa
Ibrahim also created a foundation which releases an annual ranking of good and bad governance among African nations, based on a number of indicators. Free and fair elections garner positive points, for example, while corruption lowers a country's ranking. The foundation also presents the annual Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, which awards $5 million to a commendable African politician. This year, though, for the second year in a row, the jury found no one it considered worthy of receiving the prize.
Does that mean things in Africa are not, in fact, getting better? Ibrahim shakes his head and says he does believe the continent is developing -- primarily thanks to mobile phones and the Internet. "The mobile phone is an important tool of civil society," he says. "If a border customs officer extorts money from you, take his picture with your mobile phone and put it online. If someone pressures you during an election, do the same."
Even tensions between tribes and ethnic groups can be overcome, Ibrahim believes, if people are connected by the Internet instead of leading isolated existences in their own villages. "The more we know about each other, the more difficult it is to sow discord," he says. "Through modern communication, Africans will learn that it's better to do business with each other than to hate each other."
Billionaire Mo Ibrahim and Internet businessman Wesley Kirinya are two faces of the new Africa. The one has already ridden a good idea to technological success, while the other is just starting out, an entire generation of Africans alongside him. The continent has not yet produced an Internet billionaire, but that will come. "Give us a couple years," Kirinya says confidently.
Cutting-Edge African Apps
Africans have increasingly become sought-after experts at IT conventions -- their knowledge is valued because African IT developers have to be especially creative given the continent's limitations. The greatest obstacle to their work is the fact that so far only a small proportion of the mobile phones used in Africa are Internet-enabled. But African programmers have found ways to coax more functions out of basic mobile phones. Special programs, for example, can turn text messages into emails, allowing people to send text messages to government authorities, universities or banks which are then processed and continue their trajectory online.
This is how the social network Mxit works in South Africa. All the site's over 7 million users have to do in order to participate in chats or upload statuses or posts is send a text message, and Mxit does the rest. The social network offers its own chat rooms, but can also connect users with Facebook or Yahoo.
Another successful app from Africa that works via text message basis is iCow. The brainchild of Kenyan farmer Su Kahumbu, this program received development and technical implementation funding from a British foundation.
Medical, Agricultural Uses
Small farmers throughout the country can register for the program using the code *285#. They then enter their cows' age, breed, weight, sex and date of last calving, and iCow automatically sends them advice developed by veterinarians concerning feed, illnesses and fertility cycles. To make it possible for illiterate farmers to use the program as well, it uses voice messages rather than text. Many thousands of farmers now use the system.
The Internet helps sick people, too. Hardly any doctors in Africa practice entirely offline these days, even in the most remote locations. Practices in small villages can send their lab results to university clinics, and receive diagnoses and treatment suggestions in return. Such reporting systems also make it possible to identify the start and spread of epidemics early on.
Mobile phones can also be used to determine the authenticity and quality of medications -- a very important application in Africa, where thousands of people die each year as a result of counterfeit drugs. To address this problem, computer experts in Ghana developed a simple security program. First, patients scan the bar code on the packaging with their mobile phones or note down the identification number. They then send this information to a central office that checks the drug's authenticity and sends back the result, together with dosage advice. This system, called mPedigree, is supported by government health authorities and pharmaceutical companies in West Africa.
Map Program Drawn from Violence
But mobile phones in Africa do even more than just helping sick people, farmers and children -- they can also save lives in catastrophes and wars. The best example of this is a platform created by a Kenyan company called Ushahidi, which likewise has its office at iHub on Ngong Road. Ushahidi, which means "testimony" in Swahili, is also the name of a platform that allows users to upload instances of fighting, corruption and epidemics to an interactive map.
Ushahidi provides free, downloadable software that is used to generate interactive catastrophe maps. Victims, witnesses and aid workers can send in reports via text message, which Ushahidi then displays as points on a map.
Political scientist Daudi Were, 34, is one member of the team that developed Ushahidi. He didn't get involved because he loves technology, he says, but because of the project's political aspects. He was one of the country's most famous bloggers six years ago, when violence exploded on New Year's Eve following Kenya's presidential election and supporters of both candidates fought with each other. In the space of just a few hours, Ngong Road, too, became a battlefield. More than 1,500 people in Kenya died.
"We were shaken," Were says. "No one knew the true extent of the violence, and the statements the government issued couldn't be trusted." So he sat down with some programmer friends and in just six days they developed Ushahidi's software. More than 5,000 witnesses and victims of violence reported their experiences to the platform by text message.
Saving Lives Around the World
There are now around 45,000 maps available online based on the program Were and his friends put together over the course of a few nights in early 2008. Human rights activists, the UN and emergency medical services around the world use it. Even the Libyan rebellion that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 used Ushahidi to create maps of battles and troop movements. In Macedonia, the organization Transparency Watch uses the software to log cases of corruption. Television broadcaster Al-Jazeera used it in the fall of 2011 to map earthquake damage in Turkey. And in the wake of devastating Typhoon Haiyan, scientists from Heidelberg University compiled an Ushahidi map of the damage the storm caused in the Philippines.
"These maps fulfill two functions," Were says. "They offer an overview of the scale of a crisis, and they also allow aid teams to make contact with victims and witnesses. This has made it possible to save human lives." This is possible because people who enter data into the platform can leave their telephone number or email address as well.
Brck: Spreading the Internet
The next project coming from the makers of Ushahidi is called Brck. This device is named for its appearance -- roughly the size and shape of a brick -- and contains a mobile router capable of connecting up to 20 mobile phones, laptops or tablets to the Internet, even in the most remote villages. A rechargeable battery provides up to eight hours of back-up power during power outages.
Currently, Brck's inventors are traveling to far-flung corners of Kenya, such as Lake Turkana, to subject first prototypes of the device to stress tests under extreme conditions.
Mass production of the mobile router is scheduled to begin soon. The first Brck routers will be manufactured in Asia, but Were hopes eventually to be able to move production to Africa. That would make Brck the first hardware component manufactured in Africa, by Africans. The company has received 700 preorders so far, with particular interest from aid organizations and the UN, which want to equip their emergency response teams with these devices.
Were believes the product's export prospects are also excellent, seeing as there are still 4.3 billion people in the world who are not yet online. Besides, he says, "What works in Africa will work anywhere."