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Android Marches on East Africa

A low-cost Chinese smart phone is helping launch wave of app innovation in Nairobi.

A sudden surge in smart-phone adoption in Kenya has been joined by a huge wave of application development efforts, with goals ranging from connecting citizens with health information to delivering organic-farming advice.

Camel app: An Android app from Biovision, an organic farming nonprofit, delivers detailed information, including disease and nutrition information on camels and livestock.

Smart phones surged in popularity in February after Safaricom, Kenya’s dominant telecom, began offering the cheapest smart phone yet on the market—an Android model called Ideos from the Chinese maker Huawei, which has been making inroads in the developing world. In Kenya, the price, approximately $80, was low enough to win more than 350,000 buyers to date.

Kenya’s telecom industry estimates that as a result, the country’s Internet usage, which is nearly all mobile-based, will grow more than eightfold from September 2010 to September 2011. “In one year’s time, I think Android is going to have a big effect here,” says Erik Hersman, cofounder of Ushahidi, the mobile crisis and event mapping platform that grew out of reporting on the chaotic aftermath of a Kenyan election in 2008.

Over the past year, Hersman has been developing iHub, an organization devoted to bringing together innovators and investors in Nairobi. Earlier this month, a mobile-app event arranged by iHub fielded 100 entrants and 25 finalists for a $25,000 prize for best mobile app. The winner, Medkenya, developed by two entrepreneurs, offers health advice and connects patients with doctors. Its developers have also formed a partnership with the Kenyan health ministry, with a goal of making health-care information affordable and accessible to Kenyans.

In recent years, Kenya has spawned two wildly successful mobile platforms. One is Ushahidi, which has since been adopted around the world. Another is M-Pesa, a mobile banking platform offered by Safaricom itself. More than 14 million Kenyans now use M-Pesa to make transactions via their mobile phones.

“There many more ‘firsts’ to come on the heels of M-Pesa and Ushahidi,” says Juliana Rotich, Ushahidi’s executive director. “The arc of innovation in mobile tech is getting long and interesting.”

Some other popular apps are in e-commerce, education, and agriculture. In the last group, one organization riding the smart-phone wave is Biovision, a Swiss nonprofit that educates farmers in East Africa about organic farming techniques. Biovision is developing an Android app for its 200 extension field workers in Kenya and other East African countries. (The smart phones will replace One Laptop per Child machines, which the organization found too bulky and lacking in needed features, such as cameras and location technology.)

As with other efforts, the Biovision Android app will augment existing text-message-based projects. Biovision now has, for example, a text-message system for fielding farmers’ questions about crop and livestock management.

“The mobile phone is starting to solve many problems in Kenya,” says Christoph Hess, who is developing the Biovision app. “We believe the accessibility of these services should and will be improved, and our Android app is a first step. In the short run, we don’t expect Kenyan farmers to have Android, but as the price comes down, that might be possible.” Another emerging agricultural app is MFarm, which disseminates current market prices of crops.

Some apps are extensions of the M-Pesa mobile payment system. PesaPal, for instance, helps consumers keep track of payments; KopoKopo lets businesses accept mobile payments. Because Kenyans are already accustomed to using mobile phones to make transactions, the most useful apps are expected to scale up easily. “The real competitive advantage that Kenya has is in the payment space,” says Hersman. “There are all these people doing stuff in the money space, because of MPesa. When you mix that with the natural entrepreneurial culture in Kenya, you start to see some exciting and innovative tech startups forming.”

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