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Six ways digitalization is helping Africa's environment

Melanie Hall
April 8, 2019

Boosting farming sustainability, cutting waste and harnessing renewable energy – technology is helping make life greener in Africa. Here are six ways digital advances are helping the environment across the continent.

Ruanda Bauern mit Smartphone
Image: Imago Images/W. Hutchinson

1. Agritech boosting farming sustainability

With more than 44 percent of sub-Saharan Africans owning a mobile phone as of 2017, according to data from GSMA, digital services such as delivering farming information via text message is helping transform agriculture on the continent – making it more efficient and sustainable.

And with climate change making conditions in Africa tougher for farmers, this digital boost can't come soon enough.

One example of agritech making a difference is the company Zenvus, which harnesses data-driven farming to boost yields. It uses a sensor devices to record data such as the soil's pH and air humidity, all powered by a solar panel, and wirelessly transmits it to a cloud server.

Read more: COP24: Africans expect real action on climate change 

Farmers can then access their data in real-time on a mobile app, and receive advice on what fertilizer to use and how best to water their crops.

And while in developed countries, farming is increasingly using technology like artificial intelligence and drones to improve yields, these large-scale innovations tend to not be so suitable for African farmers who generally have less than two hectares of land.

But with mobile phone coverage still lagging behind in rural areas compared to urban areas, some of the best innovations for African farmers focus on providing information rather than using data-heavy innovations. 

Farmers in Kenya receiving weather information via text message. Photo credit: Imago Images/photothek/T. Imo.
Farmers in Kenya receiving weather information via text messageImage: Imago Images/photothek/T. Imo

2. Cutting traffic with tech

By cutting traffic and the time people spend stuck in jams, technology can help reduce the amount of fuel wasted by drivers stuck moving slowly on the roads.

One startup taking the initiative is Ma3Route, a Kenyan mobile, web and SMS platform. Although the road network in Kenya's capital Nairobi is designed for 300,000 people, it has to cope with 4 million – and is struggling. By using the app, locals can send alerts about road accidents and traffic jams, so other users know which areas to avoid, reducing time and fuel.

Read more:  Top 5 greener transport ideas in Africa

Over in South Africa's Cape Town, an app called Street Parking Solutions helps motorists locate vacant parking spaces in the city, reducing the time drivers spend on the roads searching for somewhere to leave their cars.

Traffic in Kampala, Uganda. Photo credit: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Schumann.
Across Africa, such as here in Uganda's Kampala, roads are overfilled with trafficImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Schumann

3. Connecting homes to solar energy using digital tech

Getting reliable access to electricity is a key priority for Africa – as a major challenge to the development of the African economy is access to electricity.

According to the International Energy Agency, 625 million Africans have no electric power. This problem is especially acute in rural areas and informal settlements, where municipalities don't have enough large-scale infrastructure such as for electricity and sanitation to cater for growing populations.

But green tech can help out here by using predominantly decentralized systems such as solar panels, which don't require major investment.

One example of how off-grid populations can get energy is the firm Powercorner, which has developed a power generation and storage unit using solar panels. And thanks to developments in mobile money, households that wish to be connected to the generation unit pay using smart meters and mobile payment methods.

Some African nations are already putting green energy at the heart of their development: Kenya, for example, has committed to making a 100 per cent transition to green energy by 2020.

Solar panels in Mali. Photo credit: Imago Images/Le Pictorium.
Connecting solar energy to households is transforming life for many AfricansImage: Imago Images/Le Pictorium

4. Mobile money's green benefits

Mobile money, such as Kenya's transfer system M-Pesa, has helped boost financial inclusion for people who didn't have a bank account by letting users treat their phone like a wallet and send money using text message. Taking M-Pesa as an example, its success has seen it grow to more than  20 million monthly active users as of March 2018.

While there is still work to be done in helping those in rural areas – with little or no mobile phone coverage – and those too poor to be able to afford a mobile phone, gain access to mobile money, it's green benefits are tangible. Mobile money has helped poor households gain access to a range of services by enabling users to use its platform to pay for services ranging from solar energy to bike-sharing.

Junger Mann mit Smartphone
Work still needs to be done to widen access to mobile coverageImage: Imago Images/Westend61/V. Gallery

5. Reducing water waste with digital solutions

Water scarcity is a major problem for many on the African continent. One example was in 2018, when South Africa declared its water shortage a natural catastrophe.

Some startups are trying to use technology to promote more efficient water use. One such is HydroIQ, a virtual water network operator which links water utility companies with consumers through an online platform. It lets users pay with mobile money, and uses sensors that relay information about water leaks and consumption. 

Woman on a telephone in Mozambique. Photo credit: picture-alliance/imagebroker/U. Doering.
Sensors are being used to relay information about water leaks Image: picture-alliance/imagebroker/U. Doering

6. Cutting waste with digital technology

Digitalization is also helping to reduce and deal with waste. Nigerian firm Chowberry is among those cutting the amount of food which is thrown away by connecting people with supermarket food which would otherwise be discarded. And in Kenya, a company known as Mr. Green Africa uses a mobile app to buy waste from informal waste pickers. Mr. Green Africa then processes recyclables into valuable raw materials and delivers it back into plastic manufacturers’ supply chain. Not only does it help boost recycling, but also brings positive social benefits.

Collectin waste in Mozambique. Photo credit DW/R. da Silva
Technology could transform how the continent deals with wasteImage: DW/R. da Silva