How mobile tech is improving Africa's health and economy

The inventive use of low-cost tech in sub-Saharan Africa is driving an immense positive impact across health and society, and could encourage economic growth.

African man uses mobile phone

Africa is increasingly a continent of potential and opportunity. Overall health indicators are improving, with significant increases in routine immunization coverage rates, the availability of antiretroviral treatment for people living with AIDS and decreases in maternal mortality. And across the continent, economies are growing fast – with the 11 largest sub-Saharan African countries growing by 51% in the last decade.

One of the key trends of recent years has been the boom in access to mobile phones, now nearly as ubiquitous in many parts of Africa as they are in the United States, according to recent Pew research. With mobile data connections unreliable and smartphones still relatively rare, Africa’s mobile tech boom continues to be driven by technologies other than apps. This has led to some inventive low-tech solutions, with health care leading the way.

The rise of mobile phones in Africa represents a powerful opportunity to develop integrated solutions that leverage mobile health (mHealth), money and commerce to incentivize behavioral and economic choices made by individuals and communities. Mobile solutions can be powerful enablers, as there is increasing use of technology across African society despite continued economic and social vulnerability, an unreliable electricity infrastructure and low literacy rates.


mHealth: a model for African tech-driven growth?

International development agencies are well aware of the challenges of integrating mobile solutions into health services – but also of their potential power to extend the effective reach of medical information and services to remote and vulnerable populations.

There have been several well-documented mobile phone text message-based health campaigns to raise awareness of specific health issues and to drive improvements in sexual and child health in particular. These have proven the potential impact of low-tech mobile approaches to complex challenges and are beginning to inspire a new, more sophisticated approach.

One example is UNICEF’s RapidPro, which launched in 2014 and is designed as an open-source SMS framework of operating systems for mobile phones. The concept is that organizations can build mobile-based applications that contribute to managing text message-based data collection, complex workflows and data analytics. With SMS expected to continue to be a significant driver of African mobile usage while 3G infrastructure remains relatively underdeveloped, this could enable a far more efficient use of mobile technology – not just for health, but also commercial purposes.


Stimulating the economy via mobile

Looking beyond health, the private sector is increasingly starting to develop innovative mobile solutions for banking, money transfers and commerce that meet Africa’s needs.

One of the key challenges is to improve mobile and internet services, which is why SafariCom and other telecommunications giants in sub-Saharan Africa are currently working to expand the underlying mobile infrastructure. By doing so, the economic potential of the continent will also expand.

SafariCom’s M-Pesa mobile money system, launched in Kenya to manage microfinance loan repayments by phone, is just one example. By reducing the costs associated with handling cash, it has helped lower interest rates and open up sources of finance to many more people. Today, it also includes money transfers, salary deposits, loans and savings, and bill payments – providing simple yet essential banking services to around 17 million Kenyans and processing about 25% of the country’s gross national product.


Taking it to the next level

Better health and more access to finance to grow the economy are just the start. Research demonstrates that women who have access to economic resources are more educated, have better health and nutrition, are in more equitable and less abusive relationships, and provide their children with similar advantages. Simply offering health information and access to financial services via a mobile phone could have significant long-term benefits.

EY is committed to designing services that can help clients link health and gender to economic opportunities that go beyond micro-finance to building networks of small and medium-sized enterprises.

This need was explored in depth at the most recent EY Africa Strategic Growth Forum, which focused on the importance of inclusive sustainable growth and the five priorities needed to realize Africa’s potential:

  1. Embracing shared value
  2. Promoting partnerships
  3. Fostering entrepreneurship
  4. Accelerating regional integration
  5. Bridging the infrastructure gap

These building blocks can help build partnerships that foster improved health outcomes, encourage gender empowerment and support communities using technology as a tool to enhance connectivity and social cohesion.

But making the most of these potential benefits requires cross-industry collaboration, with an integrated public, private and charity sector approach to health, commerce and education. Done right, this can and will enhance the quality of people’s lives, communities and economies – building a better, stronger Africa.


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