Africa’s telecommunications revolution Abigail Frymann
- 16 January 2010
Africa has shrunk now that one person in three owns a mobile phone. Already the effect on families, business and even governance has been extraordinary, but the telecommunications revolution has only just begun.
Over the single piece of cloth that George Kamakei Olodopash, an illiterate Masai farmer in Narok, Kenya, wore wrapped around his torso and thighs, hung a mobile phone from a thin black belt. Through an interpreter I asked him what he used it for. He looked at me as though I was from a previous century.
“If I’m out in the fields and I’m going to be late home, I can phone my wife and tell her,” he spelt out. How did he charge it? “I have a solar panel on the roof of my hut,” he replied.
That was in 2003. Since then the number of Africans buying mobile phones has shot up by 550 per cent, according to the United Nations. The “Information Economy Report” published by the UN Conference on Trade and Development in October, found that mobile subscriptions rose from 54 million to 350 million between 2003 and 2008 – meaning more than a third of Africans now owns a mobile phone.
“Communities have gone from never having used a phone in their lives, or only using one in a kiosk, to where you see someone herding their cows pull a mobile phone out of their pocket,” says Maurice McPartlan, head of Cafod’s Africa programmes, who added that mobiles have made aid work easier and safer, saying: “For us, instead of being out of touch unless you went into a hotel or post office, one of the tools staff carry is a mobile, which is quite a good security measure.”
Two of the main uses of mobiles in Africa are for banking and accessing news. Earlier this year, AfricaNews.com, a news website funded by Western businesses and charities, announced the launch of its mobile news website. It sources and publishes content via mobile devices and says it has more than 400 reporters working – for free – in 35 countries, including Somalia, Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And its coverage is far broader than the formula of coups, famines and safaris worn out in the Western press. One of today’s top stories: “Malawi: cell phone banking to begin.”
Mobile banking enables those with bank accounts to access and transfer money without having to trek to the nearest branch, and for those hundreds of millions of Africans without bank accounts to move money around without the high charges of the ubiquitous Western Union. Other businesses have benefited from mobiles too. Isolated farmers in East Africa access information about disease and weather patterns; they can also find out the going rates for their livestock or crops so the middleman can’t rip them off. Cloth weavers in rural Nigeria save days on wasted journeys by pre-arranging visits to their intermediaries by phone. Mobiles have had a psychological impact too.
“People feel less vulnerable; there’s a willingness to take risks,” says Nigerian-born Abi Jagun, a researcher on technology markets and society. He explained that anxious parents can phone a relative’s medically trained neighbour about their sick child in the middle of the night. People feel safer when they travel, adding: “Having mobiles creates an atmosphere where people think and see more clearly.”
At a grass-roots level, mobiles have provided a new line for entrepreneurs. In a village someone a little richer will own a mobile and sell airtime to his neighbours. Street vendors can add to their dusty roadside stalls “recharge cards” – scratch cards to top up credit. In Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, those who own a phone drop it off at a shop and pay 20 Kenyan shillings (15p) to get it charged. Some vendors use car batteries to charge phones.
Tariffs are high, so people on low incomes don’t make many calls. They may “flash” or “miss call” the person they are calling – ring them momentarily so he or she can phone them back. Chauffeurs, home helps and nannies “flash” their employees; Africans “flash” their relatives living in Britain, who call them back using cheap pre-paid phonecards.
The extraordinarily high level of demand, particularly from the poorest levels of society, caught many in the business off-guard. Other factors in the mobile phone industry’s runaway success, according to Richard Heeks, director of the Centre for Development Informatics at Manchester University, are that mobile firms were willing to take risks, cheap handsets and low-cost pre-payment models were made available, and governments liberalised ownership and policy of telecommunications. But the benefits have reached beyond that one industry.
“The success of mobile phones in garnering far more subscribers than companies initially expected has opened the eyes of investors to potential demand for other services in Africa, notably banking and insurance,” says William Wallis, Africa editor of the Financial Times. “They have shown there is a market out there even if the majority of Africans are poor. The advent of mobile phones has been a revolution in Africa this decade – they have empowered Africans and unleashed enormous potential simply by meeting demand.”
Poverty is not Africa’s only scourge to be addressed by mobile communications. Add to that corruption and poor governance. Professor Heeks notes: “One interesting thing to emerge is ‘sousveillance’ – the opposite of surveillance. This means not watching from above but watching from below. Mobile phones have been used by ordinary citizen groups to keep tabs on government – watching polling booths during elections, taking pictures of uncompleted public works that are supposed to have been paid for.”
On the other hand, mobiles have also been a gift to rebel movements, coup plotters and criminals, and in some countries governments have tapped conversations or turned signals off at will. In northern Uganda, which until recently was terrorised nightly by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the signal would disappear whenever a VIP moved in an insecure area, says Sr Fernanda Pellizzer, a Comboni nun who runs a local HIV project.
Back in 1997 in the DRC, residents and refugees in the eastern cities of Goma and Bukavu were left without a signal for a week after the Rwanda – and Uganda-aided installation of Laurent Kabila. Mobile coverage had already spread quickly there, partly because landline coverage is particularly scant. The mobile industry has proved resilient to the most common deterrent to investors – conflict.
“Mobiles aren’t a panacea,” says Dr Jagun. “Literacy matters, disposable income matters. No country is going to leapfrog any stage of development [just because of their proliferation]. Mobile telephony is now being viewed as an enabler of development rather than something that will directly bring it about. When you talk about food aid, mobile telephony facilitates the distribution of that aid.”
None the less, the mobile phone industry boosts infrastructure at many different levels. The same continent that struggles to make millions of its inhabitants food-secure is also home to a swelling urbanised population looking for office work, and a business culture that has long waited to embrace good communications networks.
Virgin Mobile South Africa, launched in 2006, says it has created around 1,000 jobs at different entry levels and now almost all of its staff are locals. Many young people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds have the opportunity to take on their first “proper” job. Lower-level jobs include the call centre agents.
The pleasure of being able to hold a conversation any time anywhere is tempered by the frustration of lengthy delays when calling mobile phone call centres. Virgin Mobile South Africa has tried to address this: its hold messages – which they offer rather than hold music – include a thought for the day, quiz questions and a weather forecast.
Where next for the rapidly changing continent? “The next step is mobile internet,” says Dr Jason Whalley of the University of Strathclyde’s Business School. “If people are on mobile broadband, they have access to internet content.” This, he says, includes distance learning. “The amount of African-generated content has grown over the last few years. Ultimately it could lead to people not emigrating – a halt to the brain drain.”