Mobile phones to exceed people by 2014. Don’t leave Africa behind

Apple iPhone 3GS, Motorola Milestone and LG GW60

Apple iPhone 3GS, Motorola Milestone and LG GW60 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to a new report from the International Telecomms Union (ITU) the number of mobile phone subscriptions is expected to pass seven billion by early 2013, surpassing the world’s population of 7.1 billion. This news come as little surprise to many.

Despite revelations and examples of how mobile technology is being used in healthcare, finance, education and politics, Africa is still well behind in both mobile subscriptions per population and, even more so, in Internet access. The study revealed that while 40 per cent of the world’s population is online, yet only 16 per cent of Africa has access to the internet demonstrating how the continent is still lagging behind.

The mobile device, and its gateway to the internet, offers Africa the opportunity to skip the desktop and laptop generation and go straight into mobile internet access, which is likely to overtake desktop internet access globally over the next few years. Mobile access has democratised technology and allows people to connect with one another across geographical borders. Given the size of the continent, the distances people need to travel to earn a living and the lack of transport infrastructure, this cross-border point is crucial. The mobile device acts as the social glue for a society from both a personal point of view as well as a broader societal perspective. The next step for Africa is going beyond standard SMS and call services and using the device to access online information. To this point, it is crucial that the African continent is not left behind.

What hope is there? Africa does have some of the fastest growing economies in the world and has a burgeoning middle class, driving demand for mobile phones. The African market is also likely to see a flood of much cheaper smartphones that are more practical and allow access to the Internet, which for most Africans is still not accessible through the ubiquitous feature phone.

Much debate has taken place over development aid and whether or not it is the most effective way of helping African people in need. This site does not attempt to contribute to that debate. However, could mobile phone access as well as the cost of accessing the internet through mobile broadband be subsidised by development aid, allowing the mobile device to be used in crucial areas such as education, agriculture and healthcare?

Finally, could we start to see advertisers subsidise data therefore opening access, with the awareness that people will be put off viewing content because of the high data costs associated? This is certainly a potential in the West (think the growth of Mobile Video and data costs associated) and the developing world could follow suit.

It is clear that, despite the fact that mobile penetration is making significant strides in Africa, it lacks behind Europe, Asia and the Americas in subscriptions per head. To a greater extent, Africa is lagging behind the rest of the world in overall internet access. More needs to be done to increase access to this tool of empowerment and ensure Africa is not left behind.

The mobile phone and its impact on Agriculture

Malawian farmer in her groundnut plot under co...

Malawian farmer in her groundnut plot under conservation agriculture (Photo credit: CIMMYT)

The mobile phone is in many ways more valuable in Africa than it is in developed countries, simply because of its power in transforming peoples’ everyday lives. Development in Africa has traditionally been hampered by a lack of infrastructure (basic roads, transport links etc), and ineffective communications. The humble mobile phone is a way of circumventing these barriers. It is proving hugely effective as a means of a mass-communication tool, and in no area is this more prevalent than in agriculture, traditionally one of the most important areas in African life.

Mobile phones are giving farmers access to vital information about the quality and availability of crops before they travel long distances to buy them, saving people time and money. Mobile SMS alerts can also warn farmers of outbreaks of animal diseases, floods and other natural disasters – allowing farmers extra time to prepare for the event. M-Farm is another SMS based system service that gives farmers access to market prices.

Kenya’s iCow has had a huge uptake, and allows farmers to register livestock through their mobile phone and receive information on livestock gestation periods and health advice.

Agriculture is vital to the continent’s future, but when you consider that 80% of arable land is not being used, there is clearly a long way to go. Mobile phones are a way in which farmers can improve their productivity, and protect their land and livestock. In addition, technology contributes around 7% to the continent’s GDP, which is above the Global Index, so there are plenty of opportunities for the Technology and Agricultural industries to work together in improving farmers’ lives.

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Kenya’s iCow

Traditional farming in Guinea, West Africa

Traditional farming in Guinea, West Africa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Africa is a continent that is on the rise and examples of how mobile technology is enhancing everyday life are plentiful. Large tech-focused companies such as Microsoft and Google are investing heavily there, sub-Saharan Africa has the fastest growing Mobile Market in the world and innovative Mobile solutions such as M-PESA are developed by young, ambitious entrepreneurs. Digital technology is being used to overcome the continent’s obstacles for growth such as the use of text-based monitoring in the elections in Kenya, mHealth to improve the continent’s healthcare and in money and education.

Kenya’s iCow is another example of how mobile App development can help people in traditional farming jobs, in a continent where the majority of work is still very much agricultural. Whereby it has been difficult to find solutions to long-standing problems, Mobile technology has allowed people to find these solutions and leap-frog previous technological advances. The iCow works off a very simple premise, it allows farmers to register their cow with a text and receive regular updates on gestation periods, when cows are most likely to be ready to mate, as well as information on recent outbreaks of diseases.

42,000 farmers have signed up, which is a small percentage of Kenya’s farming population, so the potential is huge for a product that has already been said to have improved the lives and productivity of farmers by giving them more power and control over their livestock.

In a continent where many countries are now witnessing incredible growth in Mobile usage and where internet access through Mobile web is far out-stripping Desktop access, iCow is another example of progress in a continent ripe for investment and opportunities.