The challenges of new technology

Dr. Towela Nyirenda-Jere

To be useful to people in rural communities, mobile apps need to take literacy, language and affordability into account.

In many ACP countries, it is still difficult to access the internet using computers. The services are often unaffordable and unreliable. But cell phone network coverage continues to expand, even into very remote regions, giving people an opportunity to access information via their phone. Mobile applications are a good way of delivering that information.

The costs are still prohibitive to many people, however, which means they have to make choices; decide whether to buy airtime or use the money for something else. Those with low incomes, therefore, will only use apps for things that are useful and relevant to their needs.

In rural areas, the apps people use tend to be practical, like mobile banking apps, weather details, or agricultural market data. And often they only use the apps as part of a project run by an NGO or other organisation. Many projects subsidise the costs of using app services in the pilot phase, which is useful to show farmers, for example, the benefits they can gain from a new technology. But, anecdotal evidence shows that when funding for the pilot runs out, the users have to bear the full cost of accessing the service. The project might have proved that people benefit from the application, but it might only have been cost-effective for the users while it was subsidised.

Projects could prepare users better for the time when they have to pay the full price — to help them to factor the costs into their overall budget to see whether continued access would be worth their while. Improved planning is also necessary. An organisation might negotiate with the network service provider to have a few thousand free text messages, which might sound like a lot, but then they find they have used their entire quota within the first month or two.

If the app is well-designed,easy to use and provides a service that people want, they will pay for it. Farmers in particular can benefit greatly from having better access to agricultural information. For example by finding out what the demand is for certain products they can decide which crops to plant or where to sell their harvested goods. Having better market information can prevent instances of over-production too, where farmers are then at the mercy of the market and have to take any price they can get.

In Malawi, to give just one example, farmers have access to apps that link their cell phone account to their bank account, as well as smart-card based systems that link payments directly from auction floor sales to their accounts. They can then pay for goods in shops using the smart cards without any cash changing hands or make transfers of money (to suppliers, dependants etc.) using their cell phones. The smart-card based system has made a big difference to the lives of these farmers, allowing them to make instant transactions. The mobile app which is relatively newer extends these benefits but at a significantly higher cost.

Appropriate apps

The great advantage of apps is that they operate on a technology that people already have, or can easily access. Cell phones are very convenient too; you can carry them around wherever you go. Personally, I cannot be without my mobile phone, and I think that is true for many people. Even if you own a small laptop computer, you don’t carry it around as you do your phone.

We take our phones everywhere, and I don’t think we’re going to give them up very easily. This is why, I think, we will continue to use mobile apps. They’re not just another passing trend. They are convenient for people, and can provide services and information that can make a difference to people's lives, especially in rural areas where access to other ICTs is often very limited.

The applications do have to be appropriate for their specific users, however, and too many still rely on people being able to read and write. If we are going to design apps that will suit the majority of Africa’s rural population, for example, then we will have to find some way of getting round that. Using voice-activated applications could be one way. But that only raises another issue, which is that so many apps are only developed to work with the major European languages. This again puts them out of reach for many people.

Although there are many thousands of apps available, more work has to be done to make them relevant to people in ACP countries. To be of any real use, the apps have to be language specific, consider literacy skills, make use of locally derived content, and be easily available and affordable. But these are still early days. The apps industry is only a few years old, and I remain optimistic, having seen the many benefits that this kind of technology can bring.

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Dr. Towela Nyirenda-Jere is programmes manager with the NEPAD e-Africa Programme ( www.nepad.org)

16 December 2010

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