This “democratisation of development” isn’t just taking place in cities, towns and villages across Africa. With the internet as the distribution mechanism, and the mobile phone as the target device, anyone anywhere can today build a tool and make it available to a global audience with the minimum of funding and the minimum of effort. This is exactly how FrontlineSMS came about almost seven years ago.
How to go about developing the right tools is, of course, an ongoing debate but at least the phones are in the hands of the end users, and by-and-large the delivery mechanism is in place. The next stage of the communications revolution will come in the shape of smart phones, presenting yet more opportunity. What we see happening today is exciting, but we haven’t seen anything yet.
Prestigious universities and colleges around the world now devote entire courses to technology-for-development, many wrapped up with subjects such as design and entrepreneurship. Stanford University helps “design for extreme affordability”, while MIT initiatives aim to “educate students in science and technology that will best serve the world in the 21st century”.
There are likely more people working on solving social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history.
Since starting out working with mobiles almost ten years ago, I’ve seen at first hand this shift in focus. Designing mobile applications for the next billion, or the bottom of the pyramid, or the other 90% - whatever you choose to call it – is now big business. You only have to look at cites like Nairobi, where companies like Google, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Samsung have set up shop.
Their mission, in many cases, is to help to get the best African minds thinking about African problems. Clearly, if this trend continues then Africans are less likely to be left behind in designing solutions for their own continent than they were before. It would be hard for anyone to argue that this is not a positive step.
At the same time as this influx of big business, there are increasing numbers of homegrown initiatives. Innovation and technology labs have been springing up over the continent for at least the last three years. According to Erik Hersman, Founder of the iHub, there are now more than 50 tech hubs, labs, incubators and accelerators in Africa, covering more than 20 countries. Mobile phones will be at the centre of the majority of solutions their tenants develop.
I’ve always maintained that one of the best things about the use of mobile phones as a development tool is that it was never planned. The development sector has shown that, historically, it’s not been overly successful at delivering on those.
Instead, anyone anywhere with an internet connection and a software development kit can help tackle some of the bigger problems of our time. What we are witnessing is the democratisation of development.
Today, you don't need to be a doctor, teacher, economist or dam builder to make a positive impact on your – or any other - country's development. And that can only be a good thing.
Ken Banks, is the founder of kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS. He specialises in the application of mobile technology for social good and has worked at the intersection of technology, anthropology, conservation and development for the past 20 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @kiwanja.