A low-cost Chinese smartphone is helping launch wave of app innovation in East Africa

Smart phones surged in popularity in February after Safaricom, Kenya’s dominant telecom, began offering the cheapest smart phone yet on the market—an Android model called Ideos from the Chinese maker Huawei, which has been making inroads in the developing world. In Kenya, the price, approximately $80, was low enough to win more than 350,000 buyers to date.

A sudden surge in smart-phone adoption in Kenya has been joined by a huge wave of application development efforts, with goals ranging from connecting citizens with health information to delivering organic-farming advice.

In recent years, Kenya has spawned two wildly successful mobile platforms. One is Ushahidi, which has since been adopted around the world. Another is M-Pesa, a mobile banking platform offered by Safaricom itself. More than 14 million Kenyans now use M-Pesa to make transactions via their mobile phones.

“There many more ‘firsts’ to come on the heels of M-Pesa and Ushahidi,” says Juliana Rotich, Ushahidi’s executive director. “The arc of innovation in mobile tech is getting long and interesting.”

Some other popular apps are in e-commerce, education, and agriculture. In the last group, one organization riding the smart-phone wave is Biovision, a Swiss nonprofit that educates farmers in East Africa about organic farming techniques. Biovision is developing an Android app for its 200 extension field workers in Kenya and other East African countries. (The smart phones will replace One Laptop per Child machines, which the organization found too bulky and lacking in needed features, such as cameras and location technology.)

As with other efforts, the Biovision Android app will augment existing text-message-based projects. Biovision now has, for example, a text-message system for fielding farmers’ questions about crop and livestock management.

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