In Sub-Saharan Africa, many people turn to mobile connectivity to access basic services that are otherwise out of reach. 

Take m-mama for example. The service launched in 2013 by Vodafone Foundation to provide emergency transport for pregnant women in isolated parts of Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Lesotho: an initiative created to combat a high rate of maternal-related deaths. 

Meanwhile, Safaricom’s m-Pesa was introduced in the same year to tackle a deep financial divide, although 45 per cent of adults in Sub-Saharan Africa were still unbanked by end-2022. Today, the app allows its 51 million users to send and receive money via SMS and manage household bills. MTN’s MoMo, launched in Ghana in 2009, lets users do the same. 

With mobile technologies expected to continue playing a central role in Africa’s socio-economic life, Max Cuvellier, head of Mobile for Development (M4D) at GSMA, told Mobile World Live (MWL) that fintech and health technology will be key topics at MWC Kigali 2023, taking place in the Kigali Convention Centre, Rwanda, from 17 October to 19 October. 

Health is wealth 
“We usually think about how to leverage technology to provide people with a healthy and dignified life. One is obviously health. Health is wealth, generally speaking, but in the past health tech has probably not been given the visibility it deserves. So, it’s great to have it as a key theme this year”, Cuvellier said. 

This year’s congress will highlight the integration of new technologies to provide solutions to African citizens, added Cuvellier, who named the continent as a place with the highest concentration of impactful deployments of digital tech. 

Sessions around this topic will be hosted by the Africa HealthTech Summit, which brings together Africa CDC, a public health agency of the African Union, and Smart Africa, a joint governmental initiative aimed at encouraging ICT investments.  

With diversity and inclusion being an anchor of sorts for MWC Kigali 2023, the Africa HealthTech Summit will feature discussions from female leaders who are breaking barriers to shape the future of Africa’s digital health ecosystem and other industry experts who will be addressing investment gaps within the health sector. 

Home to 760 million mobile money users, discussions around digital economy and fintech are expected to dominate the congress: “Half of the world’s mobile money users are located in Africa, and two-thirds of the value of mobile money transactions globally are happening in Africa,” Cuvellier said. 

However, he also pointed out the shift to a digital financial landscape comes with its own challenges, stating it’s “an environment that is becoming more complex”. 

Indeed, research in 2021 found half of m-Pesa adopters had fallen victim to fraud. So, “it’s really crucial to maintain the momentum and also have the hard conversation”, he added. 

Angela Wamola, head of Sub-Saharan Africa at GSMA, told MWL collaborative efforts between private and public sectors are crucial in educating customers about the risks of digital technology and pushing forward “stringent regulatory frameworks”. 

This is fundamental at a time when Africa’s “digital economy is facing new disruptions as it grows”, said Wamola. 

Start-up revolution 
MWC Kigali 2023 also aims to bring attention to how innovations in Africa have extended far beyond mobile apps, thanks to a ripe start-up ecosystem which in 2022 raised more than $3 billion worth of funding. 

Under the theme of Accelerate Africa, the event is expected to dive into how emerging technology start-ups are reshaping the continent’s entrepreneurial sector, with Cuvellier referring to Africa 118, an Ethiopian company which connects over 10,000 African SMEs to the internet and helps them grow their online presence.  

Its CEO, Ezana Raswork, will feature as a panellist to explore the impact of technology on small businesses. Cuvellier also highlighted Freetown Waste Transformer, a female-led company based in Sierra Leone’s capital that converts organic waste into clean energy. 

“We do a lot of work with start-ups, and I think they’ve really emerged in the past five years”, creating “solutions that are not only taking businesses but also society to the next level”. 

Devices accessibility 
Sub-Saharan Africa has made great strides in making mobile innovation an enabler of change. Today, 85 per cent of the region is covered by mobile networks, but the remaining 15 per cent, which accounts for about 200 million people, remains unconnected. 

Out of the 85 per cent covered by the internet, there are more people who are not using the internet than those using it, Cuvellier said. This is due to a lack of access to affordable handsets and broadband, which have been key barriers in Africa’s digitalisation journey.

“Africa is a mobile-first continent. Owning an internet-enabled phone is a big step on the path to being fully integrated in the society and the economy, and it touches every aspect of Africans’ personal and professional life,” Cuvellier said. 

Meanwhile, Wamola emphasised that the upcoming event will showcase programmes and policy developments aimed at narrowing the digital divide, including subsidising devices and data plans for marginalised communities and rural areas. 

At the event’s Policy Leader Forum, Wamola will be speaking alongside Rwanda’s Minister of ICT and Innovation Paula Ingabire, Zambia’s Minister of Technology and Science Felix Mutati and other experts to explore what is needed to make digital inclusion a reality. 

“Ultimately, achieving equal access and knowledge in emerging technologies requires collaboration, adaptability, and sustained efforts from various stakeholders. MWC Kigali is a fantastic opportunity to bring these stakeholders together, fostering dialogue and action plans that can drive forward the mission of digital inclusion,” Wamola said. 

Live stream
MWL will stream the keynote sessions from the event here, stay tuned!