Article excerpt

Byline: Jake Bright

Kenya's mobile-phone revolution.

During a 2011 mobile-finances presentation at a major American bank, I noticed one of the bankers, an African immigrant, chuckling. U.S. tech vendors described "cutting-edge" mobile applications "due out in a year or two" that would allow Americans to use phones for basic banking. "Cutting edge? Man, we've had that stuff in Africa for years now," the African banker said to me.

He was right. The Kenyan company Safaricom launched a service called M-PESA in 2007 that makes mobile phones all-in-one credit cards and bank branches. Today, Africa continues to develop mobile innovations that far outpace those of the United States, and these advances are building the continent's new narrative: the world's fastest-growing economies, a new consumer class, rising global influence, and rapid modernization. Africa's mobile-phone technology is inspiring a generation of young entrepreneurs and leading some to wonder whether the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs may be in Silicon savannah.

Ironically, Safaricom's groundbreaking applications, those that put Africa on the new economy map, arose addressing Africa's greatest drawbacks, like lack of infrastructure and health care. Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore says necessity is the most important factor driving Africa's mobile advances: "Innovation is not necessarily driven by technology, it's driven by need."

Safaricom, which is now owned 40 percent by the U.K.'s Vodaphone, identified that while many Kenyans don't have access to a computer, credit card, or doctor, many do have mobile phones. The company created applications to use those phones as platforms for a multitude of Africa's needs, such as getting money to distant family members. "To get money up country, people had to give it to a bus driver and ask him to deliver it," says Collymore. "We adapted M-PESA to address the need to move money securely." M-PESA now has a partnership with Western Union and allows people to receive paychecks, pay tuition, or buy a cup of coffee, as well as to borrow, save, and earn interest--all through their phones. …