Guest Author - Dawn Denton
Africa is the second-largest and second most populous continent on earth after Asia. At the end of 2013 the estimated population of Africa was 1.033 billion and there were over 735 million mobile phone network subscribers. This is up from less than four million mobile phone users in 1998. This continent is now at the center of the mobile technology revolution and development in this area is growing numbers of users about 20% every year.
In many parts of Africa landline telephone connections are poor or non-existent. It has been too expensive to install phone lines in some remote parts and inaccessibility often leads to a lack of maintenance and thus a poor telephone network.
But mobile phone growth now means that 65 out of every 100 people in Africa know someone who has a mobile phone and now have access to voice, text and slowly data services. Nigeria, which is the most populous country in Africa has the largest number of subscribers. These 93 million subscribers constitute 16% of the total users on the whole African continent. In Uganda, by the end of 2013, almost 30% of the population was using mobile phones and mobile phones outnumber landline telephone connections. Cultural life in these communities is evolving around this technological development and access.
The dominant services accessed on mobile phones is still voice services, but text messaging and data usage is increasing, especially with the rise of mobile banking services. These services are of the most developed in the world and give people who have little means to open bank accounts or pay utility bills easily, an option to do this conveniently. By simply going into a mobile phone office, which can be temporary stalls set up in market places, or a shop in a city mall, a person can pay in their money and receive a code. This code is then sent via text message to someone else, who can go into their own local mobile phone office, give them the code and collect the money. This is a lot easier than using a bank, where charge and fees are very high. Many are also not able to open bank accounts if they do not have a registered address and this too is a problem for those in more rural, remote communities.
The economic potential gained from the use of mobile phones is exciting. There are companies who lease a phone to a respected community member who has a good level of English and local knowledge. They are called Community Knowledge Workers (CKW) and are nominated and voted for by farmers in their communities and then receive mobile phone and farming training. For a salary of about $20 per month and incentive bonuses, that person becomes the ‘go-to’ person in the community for farming advice and information dissemination. The questions and answers are sent and received using a mobile phone. This could involve weather forecasts, drought and flooding information, crop rotation information and soil care, market prices, cattle and crop diseases to look out for and care for, reaping information and general farming product knowledge. The next development is to use videos sent via a mobile phone with this same type of information to the CKWs.
In some communities the local authorities have given a phone to a tribal chief or an elder. This person is able to communicate educational, health and social concerns to the authorities. They can receive advice back from specialists who are not able to get to some of these communities due to a lack of infrastructure or resources, civil unrest, war or remoteness.
There are of course other problems to contend with. Often the network coverage is poor and charging a phone can be a problem. Electricity may not be accessible or too expensive, so solar energy, car batteries and self-styled generators using static bicycles have been developed to solve this problem.
Mobile phone technology is bringing support, information and care to some of Africa's poorest communities and with rapid development and utilizing some of the most creative entrepreneurial minds on the continent, life in Africa will evolve alongside this technology. For some this is not a positive development, but for millions who are receiving lifesaving information and treatment, this can, for now, only be a step in forward and hopefully in the right direction.