Power and Bandwidth in Africa

africaThe Economist has issued an excellent report on technology in Africa, including the ways the continent may leapfrog traditional technologies in order to accelerate development.

A few sobering statistics from the report stand out. Around 2/3 of Africans have no reliable access to electricity. The UN estimates that 620 million Africans have no power. In many African countries having lights for schools or refrigeration for clinics is out of the question.  The World Bank estimates that lack of electricity costs the continent 2% in GDP growth per year.

The situation is equally challenging with respect to connectivity. In the poorest countries, less than 5% of the population has access to the internet. Data costs are still often ten times as expensive as in developed countries. Researchers estimate that every 10% of increase in connectivity could result in 1% per year growth in GDP.

As one Kenyan entrepreneur puts it, “You cannot have a 21st century economy without power and connectivity — but if you have those, you can do almost anything else”.

Fortunately, new technologies are making major inroads in Africa for both power and connectivity.

The falling cost of renewable energy has allowed small-scale solar to become more widely adopted, providing individual homes with light, a fan, and cell charger. New “paygo” financing schemes allow users to pay each day rather than investing in equipment up front. “Mini-grids” powering individual villages are also becoming more prevalent.

With respect to connectivity, new data cables are greatly lowering the cost of data on the continent. Smartphones continue to drop in price. New telecommunications approaches are also spreading, such as using wifi networks rather than cell networks to provide connectivity.

All of these trends promise to accelerate. Renewables continue to drop in price, and connectivity will expand greatly in coming years. Africa will witness remarkable changes in the coming decade.

The Daunting Challenges of Fake News

whatsapp2Social media platforms, and especially Facebook, are finely-tuned, efficient networks for amplifying and distributing emotion. Facebook’s success is directly tied to its ability to have users hit a “like” button, and have that activity broadcast across their network.

Unfortunately these same characteristics make social networks the perfect medium for spreading rumors and false information. It is easy for me to trust and be incensed by something a colleague sent me — accurate or not — and amplify that across the network.

This challenge of fake news will be even greater in regions first acquiring the internet for several reasons:

  • users place too much trust in technology
  • users haven’t developed the media skills to separate true and false
  • there are relatively few trusted local news outlets to contradict rumor
  • much of the information flows in private networks

The last item may be the most daunting. Many rural areas are not turning first to Facebook, but instead to WhatsApp (owned by Facebook). Unlike Facebook, WhatsApp supports only private, encrypted communications. It is really impossible for anyone to monitor (or flag false rumors) until news spills into other networks. This can lead to tragic consequences — such as the the murders in rural India caused by false WhatsApp rumors.

WhatsApp is taking some modest steps to address these problems, such as indicating more clearly which content is being forwarded from other sources. But since it is many times harder to dispel a rumor than to create one, this is a problem that is likely to worsen with the expansion of the internet.

Addendum: A new study from MIT demonstrates that on Twitter, false news travels faster and farther than real news. Researchers reviewed 4.5 million tweets about 126,000 stories.  Fake news travelled six times faster than real news, was retweeted broadly about 10 times as often, and reached much larger final audiences.

India’s Sprint for Electrification

indiaAbout one fifth of Indians — over 250 million people — have no access to electricity. Several hundred million more have only intermittent, unreliable access. For this reason India is implementing an ambitious program to provide every home in the country with a “microgrid” (solar panel + battery + 5 LED lights + fan + power plug) by the end of 2018. Prime Minister Modi wants the full country to be electrfied, even if at modest levels. Microgrids are limited, providing perhaps 125w of continuous power (which is much less than my home in CA uses even when all devices are turned off). Having reliable light and cooling, however, is a major step.

The impact of this program is hard to overstate. When a household has (even modest) reliable access to electricity, it means kids can study at night, less indoor air pollution from kerosene, better communications, enhanced job opportunities, increased public safety, and many other benefits. It also of course heralds the coming of broadband.

In the same way that India mostly skipped land lines and went straight to cellular, it is skipping the national grid and going straight to distributed electrification, at least in rural areas. The government has even launched a dashboard to highlight progress in this ambitious program.

The Race to Speak Hinglish

alexa indiaInternet coverage in India is growing by five million consumers per week. Many of those millions are buying their first smartphones, but many more are receiving smart speakers with Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri.

Alexa is making an especially aggressive push in India, in part by making Alexa particularly adept in Hinglish (the Hindi + English dialect popular across much of the country). In addition to accent and vocabulary, Alexa has been taught about Indian holidays, Biryani recipes, funny Cricket jokes and Bollywood plot lines. Developers have added 10,000 “skills” to Alexa appropriate for the Indian market (when Alexa launched in the US, by comparison, there were only 13 skills). Amazon is working hard to increase the skills “ecosystem”, paying the most successful skills developers over $100,000 annually.

The major expansion of smart speakers in developing countries raises an interesting prospect. The final billion or two people to get access to the internet likely won’t do that initially through a smartphone, but through a smart speaker. The poorest of the poor — that haven’t even seen radio, much less a computer — will have a small speaker in their hut that they can ask anything in their native language. “What will the weather be next week?”.  “Can you connect me to my brother in the next village?”. “What is the history of my peoples?”.

How will this be perceived? When I play with smart speakers, I think “Wow — voice recognition has gotten good, and my bandwidth is finally sufficient, and the access to cloud services is impressive”.

What will they think? Will they — without any broader context — assume they are hearing the voice of God?

The Largest Phone Manufacturer Nobody Has Heard Of

tecnoQuiz: who sold the most phones in Africa last year?

a) Samsung
b) Apple
c) Xiaomi
d) Transsion

The answer is Transsion (who?!) — with 38% marketshare in Africa and over 100 million units sold last year. The Shenzhen-based company has focused on price (with feature phones as little as $10) and on customization for the African market. For example, many countries in Africa have multiple carriers with varying coverage. Transsion phones typically come with several slots for SIM cards — a feature well-appreciated in Africa. Transsion cameras also are designed to work well with darker light and darker skin.

While Transsion brands are well-recognized in Africa — Itel, Tecno, Infinix — they are still mostly invisible elsewhere.

But that is changing fast. Transsion is expanding quickly in India. Reportedly their research showed that Indians eat many meals with their hands and need their phones to work with oily fingers — an accommodation Transsion has made. Transsion phones are now the third largest seller in India (after Samsung and Xioami). The company has just launched products in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.

Transsion smartphones typically retail for around $100 — but the price is dropping as the company scales production. Manufacturing currently takes place in China, but new facilities are being launched in India and Ethiopia.