The Need to Empower Liberians to Build Mobile Apps

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In Chapter 30 of my book, “A Digital Liberia”, I discussed how Liberia has become a “mobile nation.” Although I forgot to mention in that chapter that, the number of Liberians who now own cell phones has increased, so much so that if the same number of Liberians had at least a high school diploma, Liberia will be one of the most developed countries in Africa. Anyway, it has been over a decade since the technological explosion hit Africa and the race between Information Technology and Mobile Communications is being won by the latter simply because of its (mobile technology) higher penetration in areas that the former (information technology) cannot reach. Yes, Africa has become a mobile continent! And so I ask, what is Liberia doing or has done to leverage this relatively new “asset” that it has been endowed with?

So far, we have done considerably well! The plethora of mobile companies in Liberia, which has led to greater penetration of mobile phones, is one great achievement. This has also help bridged the proverbial “digital divide” that separated the “Dark Continent” from the other parts of the world earlier.

However, aside from the provision of mobile communication services and devices, Liberians are yet to benefit from their service providers in the area of “apps” (applications) which have the potential to offer additional benefits. We are yet to have a mobile banking system as is being used in other countries for example the M-Pesa in Kenya. We have yet to experience the use of a tool/service like the “mPedigree” launched in Ghana and Nigeria, which helps to ensure better use of medical drugs and monitor/eradicate the sale of counterfeit drugs. To my knowledge, Liberia has nothing that resembles the “Sproxil” service/tool used in Ghana to provide real-time data about illnesses that are on the rise, or PesiNet in Mali, that is used to send the weight of newborn babies to stakeholders.

On the other hand, we do had Ushahidi in Liberia, which helped provide a mobile service that enhanced Liberia’s elections or voting experience in 2012, as it did in 2008 in Kenya when the country disputed the results of its elections.

In light of the “apps” mentioned above, I think it’s time that stakeholders begin providing the medium and an incentive for Liberians to engage in mobile applications development, and/or to simply create an ecosystem that explores this new paradigm and market. We can start this by providing technology education in schools which will prepare the young ones for such a task.

We can also create several other incentives such as a national technology challenge (Just like the past Google Android Developers Challenge), allowing high school and first year college students to compete. Grants and loans should be given to firms, organizations and individuals who are interested in the development of mobile applications. Training centers and labs should be built to ensure that we achieve such an “ecosystem.”

The two players in Liberia that ought to play a crucial role in ensuring that this is achieved are the Government of Liberia and Telcos (mobile operators, ISPs). These stakeholders should try to galvanize local resources to get involved in the development of mobile applications. Integrating services and applications that can facilitate the day to day tasks of customers can attract them to use a  company’s products.

The main problem I have come to notice in Liberia is the major shortage of computer programmers. Unless we start some sort of program that will help us develop more programmers, we might find ourselves with more networking and computer hardware students and professionals, just as we have more public administrators and accountants today. But I am optimistic that when the William V. S. Tubman University begins its Software Engineering Program, we shall see more programmers emerge. Then, we shall be able to build the software ecosystem that I have been advocating for so many years.

Until next week, take care and CARPE DIEM!!!

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