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.

Will basic smartphones open up the developing world?

Nokia 6020

Nokia 6020 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the latest smartphone becomes the de facto requirement for Mobile users in Europe and the US, it would be pretty easy to think the smartphone is the dominant phone throughout the world. Think again. While the UK and US struggle under mountains of debt and an uncertain economic future, parts of the developing world are making huge strides in connectivity and communication being driven by, you guessed it, the good old feature phone.

In India, mobile adoption is high in both towns and cities and offers a way of reaching parts of the country that are normally untouched. Indeed, Indians spend more time on their mobile device than on any other medium. Yes, this does mean opportunities for advertisers however examples of how mobile can advance peoples’ every days lives are plentiful. Recently, a funny telephone game has gone viral in Pakistan which allows illiterate and poorly-educated people to find out about jobs and telephone-based services. In Africa, Mobile devices are being used to warn people of floods, natural disasters and outbreaks of diseases that could affect both people and livestock. Kenya’s iCow offers farmers the opportunity to register their cow through a text and receive regular updates on gestation periods and when cows are most likely to mate. M-PESA, originally launched in Africa and newly launched in parts of India, gives the “unbanked” access to mobile banking services. This cheap, mass-communication device will continue to help people throughout the developing world.

It is the feature phone not the smartphone, that is driving this and global shipments of feature phones still far outstrip smartphones. The latest Android or Apple device is far too expensive for the majority of people in developing countries, and cheaper alternatives offer the basic services that people require. As mobile shipments continue to steer towards the developing world, we are likely to see companies turn their attention that way and come up with cheaper alternatives. Although there will always be an aspirational facet to owning a premium smartphone, and countries with burgeoning middle classes such as India and China will drive this, the large tech companies will need to produce cheaper alternatives to increase their uptake.