The rise of the smartphone has unleashed a wave of excitement and income generation across the software development community. Applications that can run on iPhones, Android phones and Blackberry's, can be written quickly, and on the cheap, and have generated outsized returns for their creators.
Even more impressive is that this application revolution is just starting. As Darrell Owen pointed out in the Apps4D presentation at a Business Growth Initiative meeting, iPhone adoption is growing at an order of magnitude faster than any other Internet technology - 11x the rate of AOL at its peak.
In addition, smartphone adoption in the developing world is only at 3-5%, compared with 70-80% for mobile phones in general. Smartphones are the emerging middle class aspiration, and will be the mark of financial arrival that can be conspicuously displayed for all to see.
So the demand is there for smartphone applications in the developing world. Around this demand, Darrell and Steve Schmida ask three very pivotal questions to the international development community:
- Does smartphone application development offer a real opportunity for advancing entrepreneurship in the developing world?
- How could donors facilitate the efforts of private industry to accelerate application development?
- What impact would investments in application development have on international development goals?
To these three questions, I propose these answers on how software application development can be an engine for entrepreneurship and economic growth in the developing world, on a limited basis.
Smartphone applications are within reach of African developers
Right now, Facebook is driving ICT adoption in Africa. But Facebook is not coded in Africa - its written in Silicon Valley, where the majority of commercial and website software comes from. Yet there are a number of successful software companies in Africa.
In fact, MXit, a mobile social network holds its own in South Africa and just expanded into Kenya with Safaricom.
In addition, software development centers like Accra, Lagos, Nairobi, and Kampala are churning out applications for smartphones and even basic mobile phones, which can only SMS. Applications like OhmSMS and iWarrior show you what's possible - and that's without any donor support.
Donor support would increase competitiveness
Now imagine if these same mobile application software developers had access to mentoring from established leaders in the field, if they were able to share experiences and resources with their peers in a results-focused environment, and if seed funding and growth financing were easy to obtain.
That's exactly what Limbe Labs and Appfrica Labs are attempting to bootstrap with their incubators. And its what infoDev at World Bank aims to achieve with its Regional Mobile Applications Laboratory grants - seeding world-class entrepreneurship in at least two locations in Africa.
Donor support would increase diversity
The private sector will be quick to capitalize on Africa's software development for their own mobile applications - and let them. The donor community should leverage this opportunity to ensure there are social development applications as well. Just look at what the Kenya ICT Board is doing.
They're investing $4 million in grants from the World bank's International Development Association for mobile applications to enhance citizen participation in eGovernment.
I could see an Apps4D program using the same approach to bring eGovernment services to businesses, or eLearning to expand the reach of secondary or adult education.
Apps4D would have limited employment impact
Before we get too excited about Apps4D, a little history. Back when every country thought they could become a Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) hub, like India, by proclaiming themselves a Silicon Valley and investing in software development industries, USAID spent many millions on improving software development business skills and enabling environments.
The expectation was that BPO would magically employ thousands and the IT industry would be the path to middle class incomes for all. That didn't happen, and BGI found little long-term employment impact from all those millions.
But that should not be a surprise - IT isn't a high-employment industry. It only takes a handful of coders to produce the most elaborate software. One person can write good mobile software applications, which is both a strength and a weakness.
Homegrown success would be an inspiration
Youth are the largest cohort of unemployed in Africa, with young males the most listless. Yet they're also the most tech-savvy and mobile phone addicted. By showcasing one or two young mobile application software development stars, coders who make it relatively big through their apps, we could engage an entire generation to focus on positive role models.
Just look at the following Google has across Africa at their developer-focused Google Technology User Groups - software development hopefuls flock to their meetings.
Still, there isn't a need for that many software developers. So don't expect an Apps4D program have a big employment impact. It will only create a handful of good jobs. Instead, measure it by how many youth look to mobile application development as an inspiration for the basics of good grades and dedication to employment.
Apps4D should be a targeted investment
While mobile software application development can be an engine for entrepreneurship and economic growth in the developing world, it should only have a small role within a larger context. It's the sizzle that can help sell the development basics of improvements in education, employment, and business climate.
At a few hundred thousand dollars, the infoDev regional mobile application labs are a rounding error in USAID mission budgets, yet imagine the positive publicity and impact when one of them creates the next ChildCount+ or Ushahidi!