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Mobile IT can revolutionise digital health and payment services in Africa, says expert

Out-Law News | 22 Jan 2014 | 12:46 pm | 2 min. read

The deployment of new mobile IT infrastructure in Africa has the potential to revolutionise health services and the payments industry on the continent, an expert has said.

Paris-based telecoms law expert Diane Mullenex of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the increase in the use of mobile devices in Africa presents opportunities for businesses.

"Today ICT is so important for every industry but the improvement of IT infrastructure in Africa, and developments in mobile technology in particular, offer particular benefits to the finance and health industries," Mullenex said.

Mullenex said that better networks benefit the financial sector by facilitating speedier transactions. She said that the M-Pesa project in Kenya had demonstrated the potential for mobile IT to help drive innovation in payments.

"The M-Pesa project was launched in Kenya in 2007 by mobile network operator Safaricom and quickly grew in popularity," Mullenex said. "The scheme enables Kenyans to make low value real time retail payments using their mobile phones. Today almost a third of all payments in Kenya are mobile payments. When compared to the relatively immature market for mobile and other contactless payments in Europe, the success of the initiative has been remarkable."

Mullenex said that improvements in IT within Africa are focused on mobile technologies mainly because of the high cost of deploying fibre cables that support high speed fixed line internet connections. Other issues such as regulatory complications in agreeing how incumbent fixed line operators should share infrastructure with rivals and the setting of interconnection fees also make traditional infrastructure less attractive to deploy.

"Today, 95% of the population have access to a mobile network and there is increasing competition in the markets due to new licenses being issued to operators in countries such as Mali, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon," Mullenex said. "All these countries have high penetration of mobile and low penetration of fixed telecoms networks. High speed internet on fixed line networks is rare and reserved for more developed countries such as South Africa."

The proliferation of mobile devices and the cheaper cost of providing 3G and 4G mobile internet connections presents opportunities to improve the provision of health services in Africa, Mullenex said.

"Technology that allows for remote diagnoses and other mobile monitoring and treatments is an area that offers significant growth opportunities in Africa," she said. "As well as the cost of face-to-face treatment, the vast geography of Africa means it is often not possible for doctors to meet with patients. Improving the mobile network and taking advantage of the latest in mobile health applications offers scope to improve the health of the continent."

Mullenex said that better mobile networks could also help African countries improve their exporting of commodities. This is because the improvements in IT and cheaper roaming could allow for certain processes in the supply chain to become more automated and result in that supply chain becoming more efficient.

Mobile technology can also help improve education in Africa and the deployment of better networks could also present opportunities around gaming and product marketing, she said.

"There is the potential for rolling out new games for mobile devices and for pushing offers to consumers because of the ease in which the mass market can be reached due to the proliferation of mobile phones in Africa," Mullenex said.

The expert was commenting after IT industry analysts IDC published a recent report which said that the deployment of better IT infrastructure in Africa had the potential to boost manufacturing on the continent.

"“It is impossible to ignore the role that IT can play as an enabler of faster development for manufacturers operating in Africa," IDC said. "IT deployment is much simpler in emerging African factories as vendors are often able to design IT environments from scratch due to the lack of existing infrastructure. And with major declines in the prices of handheld devices, mobility can now be adopted without much difficulty by companies and individuals."

"Such capabilities can be leveraged easily by manufacturers, both on the factory floor and for enhancing workforce management. This will give an immediate boost to process efficiency and operational quality, potenitally paving the way for Africa to take its place as the undisputed low-cost manufacturing hub of the world," it said.