Policy Brief 9: New Technologies boost Democracy & Development in Africa


New technology has the power to boost both sustainable development and democracy in Africa. The rise of the mobile phone, and the use of the Internet and social media on the device, have already boosted democracy and advanced sustainable development in Africa and promises to do more.

Mobile devices and data are increasingly becoming cheaper, transmission speeds becoming faster, giving more Africans access to new technology. Mobile phones, data and airtime subscriptions are often shared in many African countries. Africans are now mostly accessing the internet from their mobile phones.

Leading global technology corporations, such as Facebook and Google have struck partnerships with mobile operators to give free basic versions of their platforms to Africans (Toesland 2015; Seetharaman 2015; PTI 2015). In these arrangements technology companies do not charge for data for mobile phone users, with the proviso that users do not download data from the broader Internet.

Facebook for example, has in partnership with dominant mobile operators in a number of African countries launched a free Facebook Zero service in 2010 and internet.org in 2013. Google established Google Free Zones in some African countries which give free access to key Google services. Wikipedia launched Wikipedia Zero in 2010 to give free access to poor users.

How technology has boosted democracy in Africa

Alternative information more accessible

New technology, such as mobile phones, social media and online forums, has boosted democracy in Africa, by giving ordinary people a voice, increasing public participation and providing platforms to hold governments and leaders accountable.

The rise of the mobile phone in Africa – and the increased uptake of new media platforms such as the internet, social media and short message services, has opened up new ways to produce and distribute information to mass audiences in Africa, normally controlled by government media.

Such new media technologies have changed the way information is shared, communicated and accessed by ordinary citizens across the continent.

Up to now, many African autocratic ruling parties and leaders have manipulated the flow of information either through propaganda through state-owned media, or by withholding information that will give citizens the true state of their incompetence, misrule and corruption.

New sources of alternative information available to Africans across the continent, which breaks African governments and leaders stronghold on information flow is and will be a powerful force for better governance on the continent.

Technology helps democratise the African public sphere  

The rise of the new media platforms with alternative information, have helped fuel a new level of citizen activism in Africa. Increasingly new media platforms are also used to hold both African leaders and governments accountable on an on-going basis, not only during elections.

Africa’s public sphere in the post-independence era has been strictly controlled by governing parties, leaders and allied elites. Furthermore, the African public sphere have been restricted depending on closeness to the governing party and leader, ethnicity, religion, whether urban or city based, class, social and gender status.

Democratic institutions have often been captured to such an extent by governing parties, leaders and elites that they are inaccessible to ordinary citizens, exclude public participation and are often deaf to citizen demands.

Greater access by ordinary people to new media platforms where they can access information uncensored, voice their opinions and agitate for reform with other citizens, is democratising Africa’s public sphere.

Technology has brought more young people across the continent to engage in politics, find new ways to express themselves – following exclusion from the traditional political platforms.

The new media platforms have connected younger people increasingly to the wider world, where they now can see how their peers elsewhere are thriving in democratic societies.

African regimes have fallen, policies changed

African regimes have fallen because of popular mobilisation against them using new media platforms. During the 2011/2012 North African ‘revolutions’, young people used social media, the internet and blogs to “gather and organise protests or support movements to make their voices heard in ways that were not possible before”.

In 2011 in Senegal, journalist Fadel Barro, and two rappers, launched a campaign, called the Y’en a marre movement, to get the youth to vote, and to oppose a third term for then president Abdoulaye Wade. The Y’en a marre movement used rap music, Facebook and SMS’s as platforms for expression, mobilisation and meetings.

In November 2014, Burkina Faso civil movements launched the “revolution 2.0” campaign against President Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to extend his presidency, using the #Lwili hashtag, named after traditional Burkinabè Lwili Peendé cloth worn by many protesters. Protesters used social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to mobilise public support, forcing President Compaoré to resign.

Similar youth groups, such as Filimbi, are now mobilising to prevent Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Joseph Kabila to stand for a third term. Filimbi encourages Congolese youth to perform civic duties, push for democratic reform and oppose human rights abuses and corruption.

Mobilisation on these new platforms has also caused policy changes. In 2010, residents of Maputo protested high food prices. Mobilisation for a strike was conveyed through Short Message Service (SMS) messages. Given the rapid spread of the protests, the Mozambican  government was forced to cut some food prices.

New media technology is in many African countries used to monitor the cleanness of elections. In Sierra Leone’s 2007 and in Ghana’s 2008 elections, volunteers monitored voting at polling stations, sending SMS messages to central platforms about the situation at individual polling stations.

In 2008, Ory Okolloh and other Kenyan activists launched the Ushahidi website, an online forum which allows anyone to report and upload cases of violence through SMS, email or web submission.

The Internet and social media is also increasingly influencing not only the old media – traditional newspapers, radio stations and public broadcasters – but also national political development, cultural norms and debates.

A Harvard University studied showed that the Ushahidi platform was more extensive and had a larger uptake compared to the country’s mainstream media (Meier and Brodock 2008). But increasingly reports from the new media platforms are also changing mainstream media, political and society discourse.

Technology has boosted inclusive development in Africa

Technology can help African countries ‘leap-frog’ their development, cheaper and possibly cleaner, to catch up with industrial and emerging markets.

The rise of mobile phone technology which is relatively cheaper and easier to roll out, offers African economies the greatest opportunity for sustainable development.

Africa’s development is hamstrung by lack of infrastructure. Rolling out traditional infrastructure is costly, takes long and often environmentally destructive.

The rise of the mobile phone has been among the single most potent technology changes which have lifted economic growth, boosted development and increased incomes in many African countries.

Technology can play three key roles in Africa’s development. New technology has the potential of cutting costs of doing business in both the public and private sectors. The high costs of doing business notoriously undermine African growth.

Technology can potentially make government services more effective, cheaper and more accessible. It can also make people more productive, improve the quality and quantity of products and potentially empower people more widely.

Examples of e-banking, e-agriculture and e-schools, have reduced transaction costs, boosted production, and improved the quality of education. Kenya’s M-pesa initiative in 2007 introduced mobile money to the unbanked.

Mobile technology for example is changing Africa’s agriculture sector. Africa has around 33 million small farmers who produce 90% of the continent’s agriculture (Livingston, Schonberger and Delaney 2011).

Technology accessed from mobile devices is now being used by African small farmers to increase production, efficiency and make farming more sustainable and profitable. It is used to increase livestock, crop yields and prevent failures.

Lack of information about markets and prices, lack of access to finance and unpredictable weather patterns undermine agriculture growth in Africa. Land tenure insecurity is a major problem undermining investment in agriculture on the continent. In some African countries, smallholder farmers’ land is not documented nor clearly mapped out.

This means farmers cannot easily prove their ownership rights. There are often disputes between neighbouring farmers over who owns what and they struggle to use their land as a security to access finance. Official government figures show that in Ghana only 10% of small farmers have documents proving ownership rights (Deininger, Hilhorst and Songwe 2014).

In Ghana, a company, called Landmapp, has produced a mobile platform that uses GPS location to survey the land owned by small farmers. Surveyors, the High Court and traditional leaders endorse the mapping.

In Kenya, a technology company, iCow, provides a free mobile service whereby small farmers input information about their livestock, and thereafter receive text and voice messages about feed types, breeding patterns and market prices for their stock. Small farmers who subscribe to the “iCow” can track the health of individual cows, with updated information about the animals.

The Grameen Foundation e-Warehouse in Kenya has devised a mobile system using text messages whereby small farmers can store their crops, secure financial advances against the value of the stored crops and get information about the market prices for their crops.

The Esoko application was started in Ghana to get farmers to access to information about market prices for products, so they can negotiate better prices.

Rain-fed agriculture accounts for more than 70% of Africa’s food production. (IFAD 2013). The FieldLook Sudan programmme uses satellite images to provide information on expected weather, growth and nutrient needs of stock, which is sent via SMS to small farmers. The farmers get advice for example, on the best time to apply fertiliser or to irrigate.

In Uganda, the Trans African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory in partnership with the Ugandan National Meteorological Authority is putting together an early warning weather system for severe weather for small-scale farmers which they can access on their mobile devices.

The Grameen Foundation in Uganda collects data from small scale farmers, through mobile devices, to detect the outbreak of crop disease. The data is accessible to all small scale farmers through their mobile devices, to help farmers reduce risks to crops and livestock.

The Nigerian government in 2011 with the help of African mobile technology company Cellulant developed a mobile wallet which connects the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development with farmers, suppliers, traders and banks. The programme as part of the Nigerian government’s Agricultural Transformation Agenda, delivers subsidies to farmers through an e-wallet, in the form of an electronic voucher through their mobile devices, using the farmers’ national identity numbers (Federal Republic Nigeria 2011).

In Senegal small-scale fishermen catch 90% of the country’s fish (IFAD 2013). In the next value-chain of the Senegalese fishing industry are small scale processors, dominated by women, who buy the fish and process it. Like elsewhere on the continent the small-scale fishermen and processors lack access to finance, large markets and knowledge of  prices.

Tiso, a Senegalese mobile service provider, has launched what it called its WISE initiative, a mobile phone application, which provides fishermen and processors information of real time market prices, weather updates and GPS locations to determine the optimum location and times for fishing. Small scale fishermen and processors can also access mobile finance using a mobile money account.

Technology is also increasingly making education accessible to a multitude of Africans. Given poor access to education in Africa, crippling infrastructure, including over-crowding, lack of physical infrastructure, teachers and quality content, technology has the potential to improve access,  to deliver quality, and content at a lower cost.

Tariq Fancy, the executive director of The Rumie Initiative, a Canada-based NGO, which uses technology to make education more accessible in Africa, is promoting the distribution of free digital learning materials on tablets and mobile devices. The Rumie Initiative is distributing to schools affordable tablets pre-loaded educational software and textbooks.

Tariq Fancy said expounds the opportunities: “Tablets can be sourced and distributed cheaply, the cloud provides low costs for storage, and crowd-sourced content allows educators to provide students with the local resources that best meet their needs” (Engineering News 2016). The Rumie Initiative is now focusing on transferring content from tablets to mobile device platforms.

South Africa’s health department has launched MomConnect, a free SMS service which provides pregnant mothers with foetal development information during their pregnancy; and a Medication Adherence application reminds patients of their upcoming hospital or clinic visits.

Zambia has launched a Virtual Doctors initiative which uses mobile telephone based internet which connects clinics and patients in remote areas to virtual doctors.

Technology has helped many African countries combatting public sector corruption. When Nigeria introduced e-IDs, the government uncovered more than 20 000 ghost workers in the public service, saving the economy US$1bn annually (Gaffey (2016).


African governments need a genuine commitment to develop new technologies. The African Internet and social media space is now dominated by global players, making it almost impossible for local entrepreneurs to enter. African governments must insist that global companies investing in Africa, transfer skills to locals and support local start-ups.

Civil society group such as the Association for Progressive Communications have warned that global technology companies are so dominant they could become the “gatekeepers of content”, cutting off access to websites they disapprove of and varying internet speed when it suits them (Schünemann, Steiger and Stier 2015; Toesland 2015; DemocracyNow 2015).

The free basic versions of their platforms, provided by global technology companies to poor Africans, should be combined with providing free Wifi-Zones across the continent. This should either be provided by African governments or by investors as part of their obligations to access African resources.

Successful rollouts of new technologies will need more partnerships between the public-private sectors. Such partnerships should combine local insight and the needs of African citizens and communities, with new technology.

Many of the new mobile technologies in development are not yet operating on a large scale – and it is not proven yet whether they would be effective on a much expanded scale.

The World Bank recently released a report which concluded that expectations that the new technologies would automatically promote democracy and development in developing countries may have been  somewhat utopian, arguing for example that the benefits of the Internet “will not take five years, but 50 years” (World Bank (2016).

Yet, to the contrary, new technology, including the Internet and social media, has already been an “accelerator of change”, but for development and democracy, in Africa, and will continue do so in the immediate, rather than faraway future.

Selected Bibliography

DemocracyNow (2015) FCC’s Net Neutrality Shift a Victory for Open Internet & Grassroots Activism against Cable Giants. February 6


Klaus Deininger, Thea Hilhorst and Vera Songwe (2014) Identifying and addressing land governance constraints to support intensification and land market operation: evidence from 10 African countries. Food Policy 48, pp. 76-87, April 21

Engineering News (2016) Education Innovations in Africa could level playing field for millions of students worldwide. September 22


Andre-Michael Essoungou (2010) Young Africans put technology to new uses. UN Africa Renewal, April, p.3


FAFO (2011) Gender differences in assets. Agricultural Development Economics Division Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, ESA Working Paper No. 11-12 March

Federal Republic Nigeria (2011) The Transformation Agenda: Summary of Federal Government’s Key Priority Policies, Programmes and Projects 2011-2015, Abuja


Connor Gaffey (2016) Nigeria: 37 000 Ghost Workers in Civil Service, says anti-corruption chief. Newsweek, April 20 [http://europe.newsweek.com/nigeria-37000-ghost-workers-civil-service-says-anti-corruption-chief-450027?rm=eu]

IFAD (2013) Smallholders, food security, and the environment. International Fund for Agricultural Development and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Rome: IFAD

Geoffrey Livingston, Steven Schonberger and Sara Delaney (2011) Sub-Saharan Africa: The State of Smallholders in Agriculture. Paper presented at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Conference on New Directions for Smallholder Agriculture, Rome, January 24-25

Patrick Meier and Kate Brodock (2008) Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence: Comparing Mainstream News, Citizen Journalist and Ushahidi. Boston: Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Press Trust of India (2015) Facebook Partners Airtel Africa to Launch Free Basics in 17 Countries. November 18 [http://gadgets.ndtv.com/internet/news/facebook-partners-airtel-africa-to-launch-free-basics-in-17-countries-766544]

Deepa Seetharaman (2015) Facebook, Eutelsat Team to Provide Internet to Sub-Saharan Africa. The Wall Street Journal, October 5


Finbarr Toesland (2015) Is Facebook undermining African alternatives? New African, November 12


Wolf J. Schünemann, Stefan Steiger and Sebastian Stier (2015). The Net Neutrality Debate on Twitter. Internet Policy Review, 4(4), December

World Bank (2016) Digital Dividends. World Development Report 2016. New York: World Bank

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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