David Rowan, editor of Wired‘s UK version, takes a tour of Africa and is stunned by the rapid proliferation of technologies the West takes for granted but have only recently taken hold on the continent:

You need only to look at the map of huge broadband fibre-optic cables currently being laid on both east and west coasts, from Djibouti to Dakar, to understand how quickly and ambitiously an entire continent is being connected. It’s like being back in 1995 again, and realising there might just be a market for an online bookshop or auction website.

Don’t take my word for it: David Cameron is so keen to give British entrepreneurs a foothold that he recently took a delegation of CEOs to Nigeria and South Africa to highlight “one of the greatest economic opportunities on the planet”.

The trip - featuring the bosses of firms such as Barclays and the Royal Mint, Vodafone and Virgin Atlantic - was hailed by Downing Street as “an historic visit to a continent with a trillion-dollar economy and the potential, according to the IMF, to grow faster than Brazil over the next five years”.

Much of that growth will come from startups that bring the mobile internet to businesses and consumers who have until now been offline. That’s why Cameron’s team invited along the British founders of red-hot mobile-money business Monitise, a clever text-messaging system called Frontline SMS - and your own Digital Life columnist with his trusty notebook.

Rowan goes on to discuss the importance of e-commerce and the role our startup, SlimTrader, is playing in Africa’s economic development.

The Economist cheers Africa’s economic surge:

AFRICA has made a phenomenal leap in the last decade. Its economy is growing faster than that of any other continent. Foreign investment is at an all-time high; Senegal has lower borrowing costs than Ireland. The idea of a black African billionaire—once outlandish except for kleptocratic dictators—is commonplace now. At the same time an expanding African middle class (similar in size to those in India and China) is sucking in consumer goods. Poverty, famine and disease are still a problem but less so than in the late 20th century, not least thanks to advances in combating HIV and malaria.

The anonymous blogger further highlights the increasingly important role technology is playing in the continent’s boom: “Africa has 400m mobile phone users—more than America. Such tools boost local economies, especially through mobile banking and the distribution of agricultural information.” As Matt Ridely argues, “pessimism about Africa is overdone and trade is transforming Africa for the better.” In other words: business is getting done on the continent—and lives are changing. We’re both excited and proud to be a part of it.

The market in Bali County.

SlimTrader has entered the next phase of our Notore pilot program in the Northern Nigerian State of Taraba. We’ve been working with retailers, aka Village Promoters (VPs), for some time in order to upload their complete inventory, including quantity and price, into our database. Now that this stage is complete, we’re focusing on reaching out to the VPs’ customers, i.e., farmers.

This is how the service works: A farmer sends us an SMS requesting a specific amount of Notore fertilizer. Then we reply, via SMS, with a list of local VPs who have what the farmer is looking for and at what prices. From there, the farmer determines which VP has the right amount at the right price, then makes the purchase by sending another SMS message. He/she can either pay via one of our mobile money partners from his/her cell phone right then and there, or when he/she arrives to pick up the fertilizer.

In order to explain the service and to spread word of its availability, our outreach team journeyed to the market in the county of Bali and chatted with farmers directly. This is an important part of the process. It’s how we understand, at a very low-temperature level, the needs of farmers, which allows us to refine our approach to providing the Notore products they need to increase outputs and, thus, better their lives.

Some food for thought (no pun intended) gleaned from our market trip:

- While excited about the program, farmers are also hesitant, as it’s a new way to shop for goods. It’s a common, completely understandable reaction which is quickly overcome once farmers see how simple our system is.

- Most farmers have cell phones, so it won’t be difficult to train them on using our service.

- Notore fertilizer dealers are often difficult to visit in person. Thus, searching the dealers’ inventory via mobile phones prior to traveling is a major plus for farmers.

- The price of a text message is a concern, but we’re working to offer a cheaper plan.

To view more photos from our trip the market in Bali county, please visit our Facebook page.

We’d like to share another story from our time at this year’s edition of SOCAP. An affordable housing consultant, with clients around the world, said that a solution similar to the one we employed for Notore could also be applied to the construction industry. The consultant specifically referenced cement companies, which are in need of a quicker, more efficient distribution system for housing projects in developing countries.

In addition, while she’d like to use local labor, she’s running into difficulties. Why? Because local labor isn’t as organized in developing countries as it is in States. There are too many variables, too many unknowns, too many obstacles. The bottom line: The consultant needs a better means of communicating with both the workforce and the suppliers. Which is exactly what our MoBiashara service was designed to do.

Do you have a story from SOCAP? If so, share it on our Facebook page. We’d love to hear from you.

Scenes from SOCAP 2011

During SOCAP 2011, we talked with many people from around the world who saw the universal applicability of our Notore pilot program, which we launched earlier this year in Northern Nigeria. All of these conversations served to validate our mobile platform as an affordable, effective solution to bettering the lives of subsistence farmers and others, regardless of where they live. Here are some of the highlights:

- A woman from Thailand said our efforts to support farmers in Taraba State would work just as well and be just as valuable in her country. Why? Because she’s having similar difficulties reaching remote villages there and convincing farmers to use agricultural inputs. Simply put: As in Taraba State, the farmers in Thailand lack access and information.

- A woman supporting farming in the South American rain forest is attempting to steer farmers away from environmentally destructive agricultural methods, such as slash-and-burn, toward more environmentally sensitive ones. The problem, however, is that crop yields falter when farmers take the latter course; as a result, there’s no incentive to protect the rain forest. What’s needed, then, is a better supply chain which not only includes access to fertilizers and other yield-enhancing products, but also the means by which farmers can sell their products. Once again, it’s a question of creating a network that connects these farmers with the larger world, where they would function as both consumers and sellers. This would benefit the entire supply chain, while improving the lives of the farmers and the environment.

One other note: We also met an affordable housing advocate who felt our mobile platform could be applied to the construction industry. We’ll detail this fascinating conversation in a post next week.

That’s how SlimTrader’s MoBiashara service works for our client, Aero, Nigeria’s largest discount airline. As you see, it’s an efficient, a convenient, and a simple way to book a flight. All you need is a phone and a destination, and we take care of the rest.

But what about other transportation sectors? What about people who can’t afford to fly? Can SlimTrader adjust MoBiashara to fit these needs?

The answer: Yes. The beauty of our service is that it can be tailored to fit any transportation company’s needs, as well as any consumer’s, regardless of his or her economic status. The latter point is an important one, because so many Africans cannot get accurate, current information on their long-haul transportation options. This leads to long searches and wasted money. Why? Because for BOP consumers time is, literally, money.

Herein lies SlimTrader’s reason for being: to bring progress and promise to every African citizen.

It’s been a long journey, but the pilot program we launched in Taraba with our partner and client Notore has reached an important milestone. All of our outreach staff have now visited every major county in the Northern Nigerian state, and more than half the village promoters are on the platform. They’re learning how to use our MoBiashara service, and we’re continuing to learn how to deepen local understanding of its benefits.

It’s been a wonderful experience so far, and we’ve been happy to share it with you. But there’s still much work to be done, which we’ll, of course, be sharing with you in the near future.

Here are some photos from our journey thus far:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.