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Silicon Savannah - How Start-ups in Africa are Taking on Some of Humanity's Biggest Challenges

06/01/2015 11:52 GMT | Updated 07/03/2015 10:59 GMT

In a room with large, high windows, wooden floors and long tables, men and women in t-shirts and jeans sit around, hunched over laptops. A fußball table occupies one corner of the room, while a coffee bar occupies the other. Conversations range from java script to the latest internet meme and back again.

This scene could have taken place anywhere in Europe or the United States. But, this hi-tech vista is based in Nairobi, Kenya. The iHub is one of many spaces popping up across the continent designed to foster innovation in technology. According to the World Bank, there are now 90 tech hubs across the continent, and more than half of African economies have at least one.

Some of the world's biggest tech companies including Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, Google, Nokia, Samsung and IBM have all established operations on the continent with an audience of 700 million, more than double that of the United States.

When outgoing Google CEO Eric Schmidt spent a week in sub-Saharan Africa last year, he was particularly captivated with Nairobi's tech potential. Orange, a French mobile operator, and Baidu, China's answer to Google, recently introduced a jointly branded smartphone browser in Africa and the Middle East. Orange also sponsored last year's Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa.

Microsoft meanwhile, which has offices in 14 African countries, unveiled a smartphone to be sold in several African markets, with more to follow. But it isn't just large corporations from outside the continent that are taking advantage of a market where phones outsell PCs four-to-one. Services such as M-Pesa, a mobile payment system set up by Safaricom, a major Kenyan telecommunications, manages a quarter of Kenya's GDP through transactions made on the platform.

But unlike tech hubs elsewhere, whose primary focus leans towards building applications for consumers, tech firms in Africa are confronting some of the continent's most challenging humanitarian issues. In Kenya, arguably Africa's most tech-focused economy has more than half of the population living below the poverty line, surviving on less than one dollar a day according to Unicef. But there are entrepreneurs who are confident Africa's future, through technology is bright.

Mobile Matters

The Ngong road is a thoroughfare for Nairobi's famous 'matatu', or minibuses. These transporters have a nasty reputation for swerving without warning, choosing to brake only as a last resort. But more recently, Ngong Road has become famous for the litany of tech companies that now line the street. Google, Microsoft, IBM and Cisco have all taken up offices in and around the street. The majority of the Kenyan capital's six tech hubs sit along or nearby, including iHub. Today, the area is now known as Silicon Savannah.

First opened in 2010, it's aim was to be a hub for the city's burgeoning technology community. "The iHub, at its very core, is a community of creatives and technologists bound together by a common theme: innovation," said iHub's founder Erik Hersman to the NextWeb.

The hub is free to use to members, and boasts some of the fastest internet speeds on the continent. In 2013, the three-year-old iHub passed 10,000 members, and boasts a roster of nearly 200 companies that have emerged from the iHub petri dish. As the hub's reputation has grown, it has attracted the likes of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Google chairman Eric Schmidt who have used the space as a jumping off point for exploring the region.

One of the companies that have emerged out of iHub is MedAfrica, a mobile app offering up reliable medical information to anyone with a mobile phone. The WHO estimates there's only one doctor for every 10,000 people in Kenya, meaning many go without even the most basic healthcare.

The app has a step-by-step self-diagnosis feature that people can use to find out what's ailing them. The app can then connect them to a suitable specialist at the touch of a button.

"MedAfrica is a Medical Services Content Platform that seeks to create health awareness among consumers from the comfort of their mobile phones," said Steve Mutinda, CEO of Shimba Technology, the company behind the MedAfrica app. "It also seeks to increase interactions and purposeful engagements between health practitioners and consumers of their services."

In future, Mutinda wants to add data feeds supplied by the Ministry of Health to provide realtime information on disease outbreaks and counterfeit drug-making, a huge problem in Kenya. Another problem hampering Kenya's developing is its fluctuating food prices.

E-Farming

The majority of Kenya's farmers produce low-volumes of crops, meaning their goods are bought and sold on local markets. However, a farmer's main source of information for how much they should be selling their crops for comes from the people trying to buy it. This has lead to price distortions that have been difficult to track, until M-Farm came along.

Using SMS, farmers can text M-Farm to get up-to-date market prices without having to rely on buyers. They simply text 20255 and an automated response will send information on 42 different crops including peas, avocados, passion fruit and peanuts, and their prices in five different markets.

Created in 2010 by Jamila Abass, a computer scientist from Kenya, she felt compelled to help the plight of farmers after seeing numerous articles in local newspapers. "They have to rely on middlemen who show up and give them both the price and the buyer. They have no information and no alternative market. We wanted to close that information gap between the farmers and the market," Abass told Wired.

Since launch, the app's user base as steadily crept towards 10,000 farmers. A study in central Kenya with 600 farmers showed that users could double their sales by using MFarm. Dairy farmers meanwhile, have been turning to another young startup that acts as a digital midwife that keeps track of their cows fertility cycle.

iCow is an SMS based service that allows farmers to track the estrous cycle of their cows, while giving them valuable tips on cow breeding, animal nutrition, milk production efficiency and gestation. Each text message costs about 10 Kenyan shillings, or six pence to help increase the yield of their cows.

While text based apps have taken hold in the region, cutting-edge technologies such as 3D printing have also begun to emerge. Away from the fast pace of Silicon Savannah in Nairobi, across the northern border lies South Sudan, a country ravaged by civil war that has left 50,000 amputees in its wake. In 2013 Mike Ebeling from Not Impossible, a California media and technology company set up the world's first 3D printing facility designed specifically to produce prosthetic limbs there.

Called Project Daniel, after the boy Ebeling read about who lost both his arms in 2010, its aim was to help those devastated by the on going conflict regain their independence. Prosthetic technology currently is too expensive for many in South Sudan, but through 3D technology, each arm costs only £60 to make. When Mick left, the skills he left behind has lead to communities printing out their own limbs at the rate of one-a-week.

The adoption of new technology in and around Silicon Savannah has helped the region leapfrog many of the hurdles faced by Europe and America's digital overhaul. The use of mobile phones for the purchase of goods in Africa is way ahead of other counterparts.

But despite that, there are still a number of basic building blocks required to help places like Nairobi take on more established cities such as Tel Aviv and Bangalore when it comes to attracting the world's best talent. "We need to solve the nitty-gritty first and then we can invent new things," Joe Mucheru, head of Google in Kenya told the Economist. But for those t-shirt clad entrepreneurs sat above the Ngong Road, that future is only a few clicks away.