Mobile First: Why Mobile Phones Are Transforming Lives In Africa
During the days of European colonization, Africa was unfairly dubbed ‘The Dark Continent’ by US journalist and explorer Henry Stanley. This was mainly due to the fear of this unknown and mysterious continent at the time.
These days, mobile phones are lighting up Africa to an extent seen nowhere else on Earth. In fact, it’s fair to say that out of all of today’s modern technological, and societal advances, it is mobile phones that have changed lives most rapidly in Africa in the last decade.
Why is that Africa, of all places, is ‘mobile first,’ and how are mobile phones changing lives for everyone there?
The Rise of the Mobile Industry in Africa
To really drive home just how important mobile is in Africa, let’s look at a few stats first:
- As of today, there are more mobile subscribers in Africa than Europe and the USA combined.
- Mobile phones in Africa have been adopted more quickly than TV, and electricity.
- More people in Africa have access to a mobile phone than have water, clean water, or even sanitation! (source)
These stats are pretty staggering, especially the final one! It’s not that African people value mobile more than access to water, but the reality is that mobile networks penetrate even many of the most rural, and remote, areas in Africa. The same cannot be said for clean water.
But why is mobile so all-pervasive?
Logistically it is easier, and cheaper to set up mobile masts in Africa (and other places with extreme or remote environments).
This is why when it comes to cabled broadband using phone lines; Africa lags massively behind the world, yet is at the forefront of mobile technology in many ways.
According to South African journalist Toby Shapshak:
There was a statistic bandied about in the 1990s that Manhattan had more phone lines than the 55 countries in Africa. Impossible to verify, but it reveals the scale of the communications problem. Until mobile phones came along, that is.” (source)
Shapshak has hit exactly on the issue which faces broadband in Africa: A lack of cabled access to it.
Simply put, logistically it’s hard to build and lay cable across vast, often remote and extreme, distances.
The radio waves used for mobile telecoms however, don’t suffer from extreme landscapes, requiring just the air and occasional cell towers to be transmitted over vast distances.
Although the many different countries have various results, we can say that mobile phone penetration in Africa stands at around 70+%. Compare this with broadband internet access which is merely at around perhaps 15%, and you can start to see why mobile is the preferred method of communication for Africans (source).
Mobile Has Become a Necessity
Communication is a human necessity the globe over, but in Africa where much of the usual infrastructure that is taken for granted by people in the West for instance, is developing, or as yet, still undeveloped; the access to an easy method of communication is like gold-dust.
Since mobile is accessible to Africans, they have spent the last decade making use of this resource in a variety of surprisingly diverse ways that would raise eyebrows in the developed world.
For instance, let’s consider a famous example: Banking.
Many Western readers will have a bank account and credit card. Indeed, these two things are so normal as to be almost second nature.
But how about in Africa, where many people have no access to a bank, or don’t really earn enough to warrant needing an account?
African people still need to exchange payment for everyday things such as commerce, paying bills, and buying necessities like their groceries. Without debit or credit cards this meant carrying cash.
There are obvious risks and inconveniences to carrying cash, such as not having enough on you, or losing it.
This is where mobile came to the rescue.
Using SMS, Kenyan operator Safaricom pioneered a mobile payment system called M-Pesa around 2007. This allows users to charge their account with real money at a shop or booth offering that function, and then use this credit to pay for almost anything via an SMS to the vendor’s account. Users can also receive money, send money to relatives, and deal in extremely small amounts. The cost to use it? Just one SMS.
M-Pesa is now so important in Kenya alone, that more than 50% of its GDP moves via this system.
It doesn’t end there:
- Mobile money will be a market worth $721 billion with more than 450 million users by 2017 (source)
- M-Pesa reportedly handles $20-million a day in transactions
M-Pesa isn’t even the only mobile money app used in Africa (Orange money is popular in West Africa for example), and as a whole the continent uses mobile money more than actual banking. Why? Convenience of access to mobile.
This mobile money revolution has spilled out of Africa, and is one way in which Africa leads the world in mobile app development, as it’s now used in India, Romania, Afghanistan, and other non-African countries as well!
How Else Does Mobile Change Lives?
In general, the opening up of knowledge to people who would otherwise lack access to it, is probably the biggest achievement of mobile phones in Africa.
As mentioned, the lack of very advanced and broad societal infrastructures on the continent can hold people back when it comes to ‘everyday’ things, like water, sanitation, education, and healthcare. With no easy access to libraries, or to the internet via broadband (as we looked at earlier), it is left to mobile to offer African people knowledge about topics that will enrich their lives.
This is usually though apps, although radio’s place in offering knowledge must not be underplayed either (most popular phones in Africa feature an FM radio – a feature that goes almost unnoticed elsewhere in the world).
Here are just some of the apps that help to change African lives, and why:
1. Social networking
Social media is as important to African people as it is in the rest of the world, and aside from perennial ‘big boys’ such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, it’s pleasing to see that many Africa-centric social networking apps have sprung up in recent years. These offer a uniquely African perspective on life, and help bring together the online mobile community there.
2. Medical and Healthcare
Africa’s struggle with diseases such as HIV/AIDS and ebola is well documented, and it’s unsurprising then that a number of apps have been created to help educate people about avoidance, testing, and dealing with these conditions. They’re usually free to use, and very healthy for African society as whole. In a continent where access to healthcare may be sparing, if people can learn to look after themselves better, or get help by phone should they become ill or have an accident, this is better than not being able to be treated by a doctor due to the remote location of the patient.
Some medical apps are:
- M-Pedigree (check the validity of medicine when buying it via SMS)
- MomConnect (offering health advice to expectant mothers in SA)
- PEEK (Kenyan eye health app, that can diagnose issues for anyone who may be suffering from sight problems)
- About Ebola (educates on the dangers of Ebola)
- HIV/AIDS apps (many, all of which help to educate and protect those with and without this disease)
With industry in Africa being largely agricultural, apps have sprung up to help farmers get better results, or trade their produce more easily. This empowers African farmers to make a better living than they once would, even if they are very small-scale, for example such as having just 1 or 2 cows.
- iCow (educates dairy farmers to get better results, trade their milk, and give better care to their livestock)
- M-Farm (allows farmers to get crop prices in order to farm and trade more effectively)
There are also numerous educational apps, and also African entertainment apps to complement the many Western ones available.
Up to now most of these apps have been SMS based, meaning that the Millions of people using lower-tech feature phones, a staple device in Africa, could still benefit from them.
Feature phones aren’t going anywhere yet, as they’re still the hardiest and most affordable phone types. But with the sub $50 smartphones beginning to appear in the African phone market, users there are beginning to experiment and become reliant on mobile apps using larger amounts of mobile data, such as YouTube and Afrinolly (a West African entertainment portable with music and entertainment videos), not to mention the current vogue for using instant messaging apps instead of calls, and SMS.
Where is the African Mobile Industry Headed?
So, up to now mobile phones have helped broaden the horizons for many African phone users because they, above all other means, have made information and other functions accessible. This is why Africa is truly ‘mobile first,’ as mobile is usually the first place that Africans look to when needing to communicate, get information, or look after important tasks such as banking.
The good news is that the innovation is set to continue, as now a new kind of phone is coming to the fore in Africa.
The next step is for mobile data to take over from voice and SMS, and this means that we expect a big change from feature phones to affordable smartphones. This is a big change indeed, as by 2018 it’s estimated that a third of all mobile phones in Africa will be smartphones, that’s around 412 Million.
The advanced capabilities and functions of smartphones, allied with the fairly quick response to offering 3G, and often 4G, networks in most African countries mean that exciting times still lie ahead for African phone users, and that the continent, far from being in the dark, will continue to shine brightly as an example to the world of how technology can be harnessed to truly benefit those who need it most.
If you’re in Africa, how does mobile technology help benefit you? Let us know by leaving your thoughts as a comment please.
About the Author:
Adrian Leighton is a technology and marketing specialist with AMGOO Telecom co. He has a keen interest in the impact of mobile technology in the developing world, and loves all things gadget, gaming, and tech.
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