Business Traveller UK’s Jane Labous surfs the technology wave gripping the continent and discovers how digital entrepreneurs are driving social and economic change.

As night falls, a fluorescent bulb flickers on in ‘le cyber’ and two gigantic speakers wedged in the sand outside blast tracks by 2Pac and Viviane, Youssou N’Dour’s pop diva sister.

Karim Ndiaye, the 32-year-old owner of this internet café tucked away on a side street in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, fixes a keyboard as a bunch of teenagers swarm around three computers. They merrily sit on each others’ laps to surf Facebook and Mxit, post photos, tweet, browse YouTube and, one hopes, do their homework.

An hour’s web time here is CFA200 – less than half a dollar – and judging by the smiles and chatter, it’s money well spent for these urban teenagers. “Education now is not just learning to read and write but learning how to use a computer,” says one of them, Mbissine, as she types. “If you don’t know how to do it, you’ll be left behind.”

The proliferation of ‘les cybers’ in Senegal is one sign of the tech trend that’s ringing, clicking, pinging and buffering its way across Africa. This, and the men hawking phone credit on every street corner in Dakar, outnumbering the water and sports-sock sellers of old. Waving plastic wallets of scratch cards from Tigo, Airtel, Orange, MTN and all the other providers jostling for attention in this new market, they make a roaring trade from drivers who lean from car windows to stock up. Scratch off the back, punch in the code and you’ve got credit. The trouble is, says one Senegalese friend, everyone spends all their money on it these days.

In a post on Google Plus in January, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt described the new, young tech generation as Africa’s greatest hope.

“The virtue of connectivity is that people have more choices. And more choices lead to a better understanding of the value of going to school, the need to treat women equally, the choice to not demonise others. This new generation expects more, and will use mobile computing to get it,” he said.

Africa’s tech industry is growing by 20% a year, fuelling business, entrepreneurship and income growth. Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest-growing region for mobiles in the world, according to the GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association) – most notably in Nigeria and South Africa, where the mobile sector is projected to contribute $12.7 billion and $15.9 billion to GDP respectively between 2015 and 2020, creating almost 11 million jobs. In Tanzania it’s predicted to contribute $1.6 billion, in Ghana and Kenya $1.5 billion, and in Senegal $476 million, while in most other countries, from Botswana to Rwanda, Mali to Uganda, the industry is also booming.

“There’s a rising middle class with disposable income to spend on technology, particularly cell phones,” explains Fernando de Sousa, general manager of Africa Initiatives for Microsoft, an offshoot of the software giant. “There’s increasing geopolitical stability, encouraging foreign investment. And African developers and entrepreneurs are engaging with each other and with organisations such as Microsoft to help bring African technology to their local markets and to the world. Africans are full of new ideas, and we’re seeing that come to the forefront as the younger generation dismisses the previous approach of aid, and wants to trade.”

There are already an estimated 700 million SIM cards in Africa and it’s estimated that half of Kenya’s GDP moves through mobile money. The potential market remains huge, bearing in mind that the population of Africa now numbers more than a billion people. Mobile phone subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa have risen to 475 million from 90 million in seven years and, in some African countries, more people have access to a mobile phone than to clean water, a bank account or electricity. Top players include Orange and Vodafone, and new entries such as Glo Mobile in Nigeria.

The introduction of mobile technology is one of the biggest positive changes to the continent’s social landscape in history. On a continent where basic infrastructures do not work, it’s no surprise that a cheap, accessible phone connection has been universally embraced. Suddenly, everyone can be in touch, whether they live in a major city or a thousand miles into the bush.

Karim Ndiaye perfectly embodies the new African tech geek – upbeat, savvy and entrepreneurial. Like many, he is on Mxit, the social media site by Africans for Africans, where users send 750 million messages every day. He set up his internet café because he felt local children would benefit. “People want to be connected these days, to talk to their families in the villages, or send money, so you won’t find many people without a mobile. The kids need to have IT skills, too, so access to computers really helps them, and their future prospects will be so much better with these new opportunities.”

De Sousa says: “From the smallest expansion of connectivity for farmers to do business with neighbouring communities, to the largest expansion of a mobile app developed in Africa going global, it means increased wealth creation for Africans. Connectivity for more people is the critical first step. With technology – particularly the combination of smart devices and cloud services – African companies with ambition can expect to go a long way.”

Phones are so essential now that people skip meals to buy phone credit. I’m no longer surprised to pass an Orange “boutique” in villages hundreds of miles from anywhere, or have my interview with a grandmother of seven, living in a mud hut with no running water in northern Senegal, interrupted by a phone call.

In Zimbabwe and Nigeria, mobile accounts for more than half of all web traffic, at 58.1% and 57.9% respectively, compared with a 10% global average, according to the GSMA. Penetration levels for 3G are forecast to grow 46% by 2016, as the use of mobile-specific services develops.

Meanwhile, Kenya is dubbed the “Silicon Savannah”, thanks to its tech-savvy young entrepreneurs hungry for new opportunities, and the construction of a technology park outside the capital Nairobi, that the government hopes will create more than 20,000 IT jobs by 2015.

In many respects, Africa’s digital revolution is taking a different trajectory from the West’s, skipping the first steps that the developed world took throughout the eighties and nineties. Most rural Africans’ first access to the internet will now be via a mobile phone. In cities, students are already equipped with laptops that they set up in Wi-Fi-connected coffee bars. And 4G is on its way to Kenya (although its roll-out has reportedly been delayed).

Delia Sieff, head of communications for Nokia in south-east Africa, says: “Africa traditionally has a lack of fixed infrastructure, which has made previous technologies challenging to adopt. However, with mobile infrastructure, Africa has been able to leapfrog traditional technologies and bring it into the hands of millions. As mobile phones increase in functionality, especially access to the internet, this has spurred a revolution in the way people connect.” In Kenya, for example, some 99% of internet subscriptions are mobile, according to the country’s Communications Commission.

The likes of Google, Microsoft, Nokia, and Samsung are plunging in. As Africans are more likely to be using a mobile service for practical purposes – for example, to send money to a rural relative, buy goat meat or find out where they can get the best price for their goods – operators are developing bespoke technology. Microsoft’s new Huawei 4Afrika phone – “made for Africa, by Africans” – was launched in February and allows users to check prayer times in Egypt and track shares in Nigeria. Phones are being used to provide financial services in Kenya (M-Pesa) and agricultural market information in Ghana (Esoko), while on Google, users can research topics in 31 African languages, including Swahili, Amharic, Ewe and Ga.

M-Pesa (M for mobile, pesa for “money” in Swahili), a mobile-based money transfer service from Safaricom (Kenya) and Vodacom (Tanzania), is one of the most monumental technological developments anywhere in recent years. Allowing users to deposit, withdraw and transfer money via text message, it means you can send money to relatives and pay for shopping, utility bills or a taxi ride home, all on your mobile.

That’s astonishing on many levels – first, because such transactions are largely impossible in the developed world (paying a taxi by text is definitely not the ‘done thing’ in London), again proving that Africa is leapfrogging the steps undergone in the developed world. Second, because fewer than 10% of Africans have a bank account, many will go straight to having an electronic wallet. Third, because banking via text is of huge significance in a region where transport infrastructure is so poor – the man whose Peugeot has broken down no longer needs to travel miles to the bank to get money to pay the mechanic; he can transfer it by text instead. And, fourth, because the service reached 17 million users last year, with 50% of Kenya’s population currently using it.

Vera Rosauer, Africa external relations leader for IBM, says: “It has completely revolutionised banking and payment services by providing residents of rural areas with access to convenient and affordable financial services.”

Meanwhile, on the fourth floor of a modern office building in Nairobi is iHub, a space for young Kenyan entrepreneurs to network, join focus group discussions and chat to investors. Equipped with a fast broadband connection, it’s an obvious place for the nation’s digerati to gather.

Start-up incubators like this, known as M-Labs, are springing up across Africa. Nokia works with several partners to fund M-Labs across the continent in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt, and Microsoft is working with the iHub and M-Lab network to enable start-ups, innovators and the developer community of East Africa to grow skills and build businesses.

Rosauer says: “Considering the talented young population, incubation labs are a great idea, as they provide an avenue for like-minded skilled technicians and students to collaborate and develop new technology that will solve domestic problems. The labs provide facilities that most would otherwise have no access to, piquing interest in technological inventions. These labs represent a milestone for Africa, as the continent’s mindset towards innovation has shifted from taking the back seat to driving change.”

Most tech corporations have realised that Africa is the next – possibly the last – big frontier. Microsoft now has offices in 14 African countries and 10,000 partners. IBM has offices in 20 African countries and has built a research lab in Nairobi and a new HQ in Dakar; it is working with Senegal’s Ministry of Finance to automate customs clearance and has partnered with universities to cultivate technology skills. Rosauer says it reflects growing optimism regarding progress in Africa.

“As developed economies struggle with stagnant economies, African economies are growing significantly,” she says. “The young African population is also a factor, as it signifies a workforce for companies investing and expanding to Africa. It is a great advantage that governments are implementing coherent education systems targeted at improving human resource capacity. Companies are also investing in their employees by offering training programmes.”

The next step will be universal access to smartphones, says De Sousa for Microsoft’s Africa Initiatives. “Smartphone penetration is still quite low in Africa, at 10-15%, and it’s access to those that will have an even greater impact on the social landscape – we see even greater potential for transparency, productivity and innovation. This is why we’re working with Huawei and our other partners such as Nokia, HTC and Samsung to ensure that affordable, quality smartphones are getting into the hands of Africans as quickly as possible.”

No-one’s pretending that Africa is the perfect continent for business. Its swift technological transformation means there are challenges, Rosauer admits. “Lack of infrastructure such as computers, roads and electricity is a hindrance to access, integration and innovation in many parts ,” she says. “There’s also a severe shortage of technical skills as companies continuously adapt technology and require more skilled technicians.”

Google’s Eric Schmidt wrote about the functional problems of connectivity in Africa, including a lack of electric power, the general trend of rural to urban migration, and pervasive corruption. Still, he remained positive. “Information is power, and more information means more choices,” he said. “Documenting abuses, getting pressure from outside to fix real problems, and solving illiteracy are just a few functions of even the most limited of feature phones.”

While Africa may have problems, he seems to say, technology can help it solve them. Or, as Karim Ndiaye puts it: “Connected is cool. If us Africans have technology, the moon’s the limit for us.”