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?


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’


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.


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.

South Africa uses text messaging to improve Maternal Health Access

South Africa

South Africa (Photo credit: United Nations Photo)

After years of headlines about Africa’s poverty, its emerging middle class, estimated to be  at about 300 million of the continent’s 1 billion people, is now grabbing attention as a driver of growth and democracy. It is probably the fastest-growing consumer class in the world and a large number of African countries are achieving relative stability in politics and economic policy, allowing the middle class to emerge and prosper.

However, it is till the least developed region in the world and someone described as middle class in Africa is unlikely to have the same financial security as someone from Europe or Asia. The continent was in the headlines for the wrong reasons recently when Save The Children reports revealed that The Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s toughest place to raise children. Indeed, the 10 bottom-ranked countries were all from sub-Saharan Africa, with one woman in 30 dying from pregnancy-related causes on average and one child in seven dying before his or her fifth birthday. These numbers are too high and innovative solutions are being used to try and combat this.

Of the world’s 6 billion phones it is estimated that 5 billion are in developing countries and this offers a huge opportunity for areas such as mobile healthcare. Data from mobile phones can help in the fight against diseases like malaria through monitoring the movement of a country’s people to enable SMS warnings of hotspot areas and to advise people to wear bed nets in high-risk areas.

In addition, reports from regional powerhouse South Africa have demonstrated how Mobile phone technology can be used to communicate with mothers who often have to cope with extremely challenging conditions. According to UNICEF, 4,300 mothers die in South Africa every year due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. The recently launched programme is known simply as MAMA, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, and is fighting to reduce maternal deaths. An expectant mother may receive 2 – 3 messages a week to offer advice as well as warning signs to look out for and is available in several different languages. The MAMA service demonstrates how mobile technology can assist in healthcare and go some way in radically improving the lives of expectant mothers in the developing world. It has already launched in Bangladesh, and will soon launch in India.

Mobile phone location data could help in fight against Malaria

Siemens SL55 mobile phone

Siemens SL55 mobile phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the world’s 6 billion phones it is estimated that 5 billion are in developing countries. From a Big Data perspective, this offers a fantastic opportunity, particularly on the African continent. Although global shipments of smartphones have recently overtaken those of feature phones, the majority of phones in the developing world are cheap, simple phones that are used for calls and text messaging. Cheap phones can be used to track people’s movements and mobile payments, such as the M-PESA system used in Kenya and Tanzania, can also be used to analyse employment trends and give governments an insight into poverty, transportation and economic activity. The use of the mobile phone in these 2 crucial areas is potentially very powerful.

Big data from cheap phones in Africa could really help in the fight against diseases like malaria. By analysing data from mobile phones, location based data could help map people’s movements and help understand the spread of diseases. Africa has been hampered by a lack of data-gathering infrastructure, so mobile phone data can open up up a realm of possibilities but there needs to be pressure on the operators to allow access.

Lake Victoria has long been known as a hotspot and source of malaria, but what hasn’t been known is detailed information about how and when people travel to and from the area. Standard efforts at tracking people have been sketchy at best as information at border controls is poor. The use of location based data to monitor the movement of people could help indicate high risk areas and high risk times to travel. In addition, text messaging could then be used to alert people of dangerous areas and to ensure people are advised to use a bed net. In Sierra Leone, the launch of a location-based SMS system will reach up to 36,000 people an hour, with warnings of impending fires, floods or outbreaks of disease. The system is called the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA) and will allow the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, with support from the British and Icelandic Red Cross, to reach people in need in a matter of minutes.

Last year, Orange released mobile phone data from the Ivory Coast which gave information on five months worth of calls made by 5m people. The data will be presented at MIT under the name Data for Development, part of a larger conference on data-mining projects throuout the world. A part of the data will chart travel between a traditional North South ethnic divide and may help avoid conflict in the future. There is a huge amount of excitement about this upcoming release of data and all of the possibilities it may be bring in the Ivory Coast and beyond.

We need to protect consumer privacy but there also needs to be continued pressure on phone operators to release anonymous location based user data . Mobile data may be the future of epidemiology and it could be how malaria is eradicated.

Sierra Leone launches SMS system to save lives

Flag-map of Sierra Leone

Flag-map of Sierra Leone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sierra Leone emerged from a decade of civil war in 2002 and has made substantial economic growth in recent years, but poverty and unemployment are still very prevalent. Mobile technology, and in particular SMS, represents an excellent opportunity to communicate effectively with people who have traditionally been hard to reach on areas such as health and flood prevention. Harnessing mobile technology in innovative ways such as this will help save lives throughout the developing world.

The launch of a location-based SMS system should reach up to 36,000 people an hour, with warnings of impending fires, floods or outbreaks of disease. The system is called the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA) and will allow the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, with support from the British and Icelandic Red Cross to reach people in need in a matter of minutes. Sierra Leone is only the second country in the world to launch the TERA SMS System and was initially developed in response to the earthquake in Haiti. It is being delivered in partnership with the Sierra Leone’s largest mobile operator, Airtel, as well as two additional operators – Comium and SierraTel – to allow the system to reach 1.5m people.

A year of monthly campaigns have been planned including information ahead of World Malaria Day on April 25th and further campaigns covering everything from cholera, tuberculosis and child health information to flood and fire prevention advice.

The launch of the TERA system is now planned in 40 further countries over the next 5 years, reaching millions of people throughout the world. The collaboration between the mobile operator Airtel, TERA and various charities working in Sierra Leone is an example of how mobile services can really help save lives.