Africa Calling

“The mobile industry changed Africa.” Mo Ibrahim, founder of Celltel

What did you do with your cell phone today? Listen to music on your walk to work/school? Play sudoku while waiting for the train? Check your friends status on facebook? In Nigeria, a farmer uses his mobile phone to check daily market prices on his crops. In Tanzania, a woman working in Dar Es Salaam can wire money to her family in Moshi with the touch of a button. You might be surprised to find out that Africa is home to the world’s fastest expanding mobile phone market. Containing of the poorest nations in the world, Africa is not typically seen as a market for new technology, but mobile phones are being used in innovative ways to connect people all over the continent. African cellular providers, such as Zain and Tigo, offer their users a variety of services aimed not just at entertainment, but at communication, connection, and efficiency – qualities which are crucial to the survival and growth of small businesses in Africa.

In Uganda, many farmers are more prepared than ever for the days they go to market. With a mobile phone, a cattle driver can make the most profitable choice of which market to sell at by checking the price of beef in various locations. A farmer selling millet can contact and take orders from multiple buyers without having to leave home during the harvest or rely on a middleman to sell their products. On-the-go contract workers make themselves more readily available to potential clients by having a reliable way to be reached at all times. Mobiles not only save valuable time, and therefore money, but having a more reliable line of communication can keep long distance family members connected and even save a life in emergency situations, especially for those living in isolated or rural areas. Simply having more ready access to information can help educate Africans on simple things such as disease prevention. Mobiles even play a part in preventing government corruption by electronically monitoring election tallies. And with the exponentially expanding cellular market, service providers are constantly coming out with new ways to provide these essential services to their users at the most cost-effective rates possible.

While it may seem contradictory that a continent with 33 of the UN’s 50 ‘Least Developed Countries’ in the world would have the fastest-growing market for services that are generally pretty expensive, most cellular providers in Africa offer pay-as-you-go plans for those with less than reliable income. Even the problem of scarce electricity sources required creates a new opening for entrepreneurs who can levy a fee to charge mobile phones at market kiosks using car batteries. Of course this booming new interest in mobile phones is not the “silver bullet” for African development. Instead it should be seen as a valuable tool, offering greater access to resources previously not available to even the most educated or wealthy Africans. The success of the mobile industry in countries that have a history of poor or non-existent governmental structure is astounding and can be used as an example for other burgeoning industries such as transportation. However, development of state infrastructure is still necessary in most areas in order for such a lucrative industry to reach it’s highest potential – a farmer cannot get to the best market if the dirt roads are washed out. So next time you pull out your Blackberry or iPhone to check a text message, take a second to think about what it means to you and what it might mean to someone on the other side of the world.