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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International development – how can mobile technology help

Five Mobile Systems

Five Mobile Systems (Photo credit: carnero.cc)

Mobile penetration is at 89% in the developing world and could be a potential game changer for international development. The devices are being used to create crisis maps of areas stricken by natural disaster, distribute health information, enhance election monitoring, and help people without access to traditional banking services make transactions, pay bills and receive wages. The exponential increase in mobile coverage in the developing world, and the lack of traditional infrastructure means the simple device offers a cheap, alternative way of communicating to people. On top of the mass communication, mobility data is also being used in open data projects such as the IBM project in the Ivory Coast to track people’s movement in an effort to update the country’s outdated transportation system.

The impact of mobile technology is getting a lot of attention from businesses, charities and governments around the world and now USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, has recently launched a mobility office which advises the rest of the organisation on how to use mobile technology to start new initiatives. The agency works with governments in Afghanistan, Colombia, Haiti, Peru, and the Philippines to identify mobile payment opportunities, which can avoid traditional pay packets and ensure workers receive a full salary, circumventing potential corruption. For example, police officers in Wardak province in Afghanistan saw their take-home pay go up 30 percent when their salaries changed from cash to mobile payments. In addition, a recent report from Agence France-Presse also highlighted how mobile banking has sparked a ‘minor revolution’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It allowed civil servants to both get paid on time as well as receive exactly what is owed to them, avoiding the traditional pay packet and the problems with their superiors syphoning off ‘tips’ for their own pockets. USAID is putting tens of millions of dollars into programs to support country-level mobile money initiatives and also sees them as a way to drive financial access for women in parts of the developing world where purse strings are traditionally controlled by men.

USAID is also looking at how mobile technology can also help with education in the developing world, where traditional educational tools are lacking. For example, non-profit Worldreader  brought more than half a million e-books to children in Africa via the 10,000 Kindles it’s distributed. After a one-year pilot program, the organization has launched Worldreader Mobile, a way for any feature phone user with a 2G connection to read more than 1,400 books for free.