How mobile technology is transforming Africa

English: Motorola V66 mobile phone

English: Motorola V66 mobile phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mobile phone numbers are likely to reach 1 billion in Africa by 2015. How is mobile technology transforming peoples’ lives?

Education

Despite Africa containing many of the world’s fastest growing economies and a burgeoning middle class, it still lacks behind in educational standards. As mobile uptake increases, and a flood of cheaper smartphones enter the continent offering Internet access, there is a tremendous opportunity to allow the mobile phone to facilitate educational training. In Nigeria, a country with well below average educational standards, UNESCO recently launched an SMS educational toll aimed at providing primary school teachers with regular updates on educational content. The scheme in Nigeria follows successful initiatives in other parts of the developing world that have opened up mobile learning to those in rural areas as well as women, who can be excluded from traditional forms of education.

Empowerment of women

It is potentially an unexpected benefit resulting from the exponential uptake of mobile devices in the developing world, but mobile phones have definitely helped the most marginalised in society which often include women. The move towards mobile money has opened up financial services to women, who can receive payments directly to their mobile phone, and has resulted in increased independence and a feeling of empowerment. From a healthare perspective, the mobile device can act as an excellent tool to disseminate information from malaria SMS warnings to maternal healthcare and advice. The mobile device is allowing women greater control over their lives.

Employment and payment

Mobile devices can act as tools of education and training for workers in hard to reach places without the costs of more traditional face-to-face training methods. There is no substitute for personal training but the mobile device is a step in the right direction.

Recent reports from the Democratic Republic of Congo also highlighted the fact that mobile banking has led to government workers getting paid on time as well as the amount owed to them. In a system where corruption is endemic, this is no mean feet. Workers get exactly what is owed to them, avoiding the traditional cash pay packet and superiors syphoning off ‘tips’

Transport

Mobility data is created when someone uses their phone for a call or a text. A user is then registered to the nearest cell tower and their movement is ascertained when they move form tower to tower. Use of this data is often known as crowd sourcing, and governments are now exploring the possibilities of using this data to update city’s transport systems. For example, the giant mobile operator, Orange, recently released tracking data on its phone users in Ivory Coast and researchers from IBM have started to use this data to update Ivory Coast’s transport system and cut travel times in the country’s largest city, Abidjan.

Personal finance

The African continent counts 15 of the top 20 countries in the world by mobile money usage. Mobile money is often associated with Safaricom’s hugely successful M-PESA service, which operates in several countries including Kenya, Tanzania and more recently, India. Access to a mobile phone is ubiquitous in many parts of Africa, and the mobile money service has empowered huge swathes of people by allowing them to pay bills, for goods and services, and transfer money from cities to rural areas at the touch of a mobile keypad button. In addition, the service has facilitated savings programmes protecting vulnerable families during times of hardship. Mobile money has helped governments and organisations reach the previously “unbanked”, who are often the most vulnerable in society but are able to access mobile phones.

A lack of entrenched banking services, minimal fees associated with the service, the huge geographical distances that separate city workers from rural families, and the fact that the vast majority of people own a mobile phone in Africa have all led to the huge uptake of mobile money services on the continent.

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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.

Mobile educational tool launched in Nigeria

English: Children at school in Nigeria

English: Children at school in Nigeria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A mobile SMS educational tool has recently launched in Nigeria aimed at providing primary school teachers with regular updates on educational content to assist with classroom teaching. Nigeria has one of the largest mobile phone markets in the world but also contains some of the world’s poorest people with high occurrences of illiteracy in both adults and children. Mobile learning should help combat this.

The scheme, to be delivered by UNESCO (the UN Educational,  Scientific, and Cultural Organisation) follows successful initiatives in other parts of the developing world that have opened up mobile learning to both those in rural areas as well as women, who can be excluded from traditional forms of education.

The technology will be available to anyone in Nigeria and will send teachers messages with educational content and advice once a day. The project should reach thousands of teachers across the country.

The use of mobile learning in Nigeria is being piloted as the uptake of mobile devices is high and there is both a lack of government funding and traditional infrastructure to aid teachers. Additionally, the scheme is relatively cheap to administer and offers an alternative to one to one teaching. It has made it possible to reach teachers, who often work in poor conditions, and who were, practically speaking, unreachable a few years ago.