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’s role in the workplace across the developing world

Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The science pioneer and ‘visionary’ Jaron Lanier has recently published “Who Owns The Future” which discusses the Internet and its detrimental impact on job and wealth creation. The book wages war on digital utopianism and highlights the way in which the Internet threatens to destroy the global middle class by eroding jobs, wealth and the various “levees” that give people stability. In the prelude of the book, he offers the example:

“Here’s a current example of the challenge we face. At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?”

Lanier, however, still does see the potential in digital technology but just wants it reoriented away from its main role so far, which involves “spying” on citizens, creating a winner-take-all society and eroding professions. I would stress the role in mobile technology in the developing world and its positive impact on business – both on the employee and employer side of the spectrum. With rising unemployment an issue in both the developed and developing world, mobile solutions have the potential to create jobs, help employees and save companies money. Whether it is mobile monitoring of the supply chain or using a mobile phone to pay employees’ wages, the potential for positively transforming the workplace in developing markets is significant.

I have highlighted a few areas in which mobile technology can and currently is having a positive impact on the workforce in the developing world, from a societal level to a personal one.

Helping employees find a Job

Mobile devices can act as mass communication tool for potential recruiters in looking for employees. Job Finder is a subscription-based service designed to link workers to jobs using an SMS-based platform and works on all mobile devices. The Job Finder service compares the job and worker profiles and sends SMS alerts to workers when a suitable job opportunity arises. This simple SMS tool, which suits the African continent where the feature phone is still ever-present, is a cost-effective way of bring employers and employees together.

Mobile Education and mLearning

On the education front, Mobile devices can be used to provide primary school teachers with regular updates on educational content to assist with classroom teaching. A scheme in Nigeria will be delivered by UNESCO and does exactly this. It opens up a far-reaching, easy to implement and cost effective mobile educational tool to teachers allowing them to run their classroom programmes more effectively.

On the employment side, mLearning can deliver basic skills and job-related training via a mobile device by voice, SMS or USSD. The primary audience would be employed workers, where mLearning could offer specific job-related training and updates around product knowledge or health and safety issues. Well prepared and delivered mobile training could enable more people to access education, while reducing the need for costly training facilities. Simple SMS based services give workers a sense of empowerment, independence and improve engagement with the company. As smartphones begin to replace basic phones in the developing world, the mobile training on offer is likely to become a more interactive, one-to-one experience.

Payroll and Microfinance

Microfinance is the provision of financial services to micro-entrepreneurs and small businesses that lack access to banking and related services due to the high transaction costs associated with serving such clients. The rise of the microfinance industry has been driven by a simple premise; get capital into the hands of those entrepreneurs who are cash starved and don’t have access to traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ financial institutions. The development of microfinance itself has been hugely beneficial in stimulating small business growth in parts of Africa and Asia.

mPayroll is an extension of microfinance and is a reliable way of using mobile technology to make secure, cost-effective wage payments to ‘unbanked’ workers, who continue to make up the vast majority of the workforce in the developing world. Their salary can then be delivered securely direct to a mobile wallet such as Vodafone’s M-Pesa. This offers the security that workers in developing countries often need and ensures they are paid the full amount by preventing their seniors siphoning off ‘tips’, which can of course be a huge problem in corrupt businesses.

Worker Panels

Worker Panels gathers anonymous data about working conditions directly from workers to enhance visibility across global supply chains. The Worker Panel solution can be used on a basic mobile device at low cost. An SMS/instant message questionnaire would be used to ask workers about their working conditions, rates of pay, concerns and general feelings about their job.

The system could potentially be used by factory management to collect feedback from their workers and allow two-way communication so that management could also send alerts and information back to workers, thus improving trust and transparency. The mobile device will serve as a tool of empowerment and is likely to open up employment-focused social networks and stimulate workers’ rights groups. In a continent like Africa, massively diverse with companies and employees often separated by huge distances, the mobile tool will act as an essential portal to access information and act collectively on workers’ rights. The mobile device could even eventually act as a  trade union tool.

Tech Cities – job creation

There is a new technology movement in Africa, with mobile at the centre. Cities like Cape Town, Accra and Nairobi are vying for the top position as Africa’s central innovation and technological hub. This has created thousands of job across the continent and is also providing the impetus for countless schools and universities. Kenya’s “Silicon Savannah” has recently begun construction in Konza City, about 60 miles south of Nairobi and aims to be  Africa’s most modern city with 200,000 jobs created by completion in 2017. Projects like Micorsoft’s iHub provide resources for technologically minded entrepreneurs and act as meeting points for young, ambitious Africans.

Despite the need for a healthy debate around the Internet and is potential corrosive effect on wealth and jobs, it should also be highlighted ways in which mobile technology is playing a decisive and positive role in stimulating employment and helping workers in the developing world.

How mobile technology can empower women in the developing world

English: Mobile phone evolution Русский: Эволю...

English: Mobile phone evolution Русский: Эволюция мобильных телефонов (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The proliferation of mobile phones in the developing world has been both rapid and remarkable and it opens up possibilities to engage with the most vulnerable and marginalised in societies, which in many cases are women and girls. The 2013 Women Deliver conference takes place at the end of May in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and offers the opportunity to galvanise the global community to invest in mobile technology and highlight all the opportunities it brings, some of which I have outlined below.

So, how is mobile technology helping women and girls and what are the potential opportunities?

Mobile devices are improving access to financial services

The move towards mobile banking in developing countries opens up opportunities for women to have more control over their finances. This is particularly relevant in developing countries where the purse strings are traditionally held by men. Mobile payments from work can be made directly to a woman’s phone which offers an additional level of financial control and independence, as well as assurances that the full salary is paid.

Mobile banking systems, such as Kenya’s hugely successful M-PESA, open up financial access to millions of the ‘unbanked’, a large percentage of which will currently be women. The ease with which a mobile bank account can be opened up is vital in allowing women to gain financial control and independence, particularly in countries without access to traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ financial institutions.

Mobile technology, in particular SMS systems, are improving access to healthcare 

Mobile technology circumvents geographical obstacles . It sounds almost too obvious to say, but the mobile device of course removes the need to travel to receive information. In a huge continent such as Africa, which often lacks traditional transport infrastructure, the mobile device can act as an excellent tool to disseminate information from malaria SMS warnings to maternal healthcare and advice. Nothing can replace seeing a doctor, but regular communication via SMS is the next best thing in providing potentially life saving information.

South Africa uses text messaging to improve Maternal Health Access
The mobile phone evokes a feeling of connectivity and independence amongst women

People often refer to ‘the next billion’ when it comes to internet access, and how a large percentage of these users will be from the developing world and will use their smartphone to access the internet. For the moment the basic feature phone is ubiquitous, but the African continent is currently experiencing a boom in its consumer class who are demanding access to the same technology we have in the west. This demand combined with a potential flood of cheaper, Chinese produced smartphones will open up the internet to millions of people who traditional lacked access. For women, the mobile device will serve as a tool of empowerment and is likely to open up female-focused social networks and stimulate women’s rights groups, in areas such as employment. In a continent that is hugely diverse, the mobile tool and the access to the internet it offers will act as an essential portal to access information and act collectively on women’s rights.

More empowerment for women leads to more women in the workforce and greater economic prosperity for a country

It is a fairly broad statement, but the engrossing Hans Rosling puts it very eloquently in a TED talk. The birthrate of a country has nothing to do with religion, but is more closely linked to the number of women in the workforce. As mobile devices offer women access to financial services, educational tools, and health care advice, it will also act as a tool to boost the number of women in the workforce and allow them to contribute economically at a personal and societal level. The more women in the workforce, the more the childbirth rate of a country decreases, the less strain there is on a country’s resources.

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 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.

Live debate on the Guardian – can the poor bank on financial services?

M-PESA Mobile Money Transfer in Kenya

M-PESA Mobile Money Transfer in Kenya (Photo credit: Erict19)

The Guardian debate on the best ways to provide financial access to the poor in the developing world begins on Thursday 9th of May at 1pm. Click here to join the debate.

According to the Guardian, some of the questions posed will be:

How best do we address the challenges in creating affordable financial services? What are the most effective and sustainable ways to provide the kind of access that can reduce income inequality and increase economic growth? And after the global financial crisis, the recent critique of microfinance and the promising but uneven ascent of mobile money, will the poor be able to bank on financial services?

My response would be as follows:

There are no doubt security risks and concerns around privacy that need to be looked into when it comes to the phenomenal growth in mobile banking. However the positives outweigh these and haven’t we faced such security risks in the developed world? Surely the fact that increasing numbers of people no longer have to carry money around means they are at less risk of robbery, which is potentially more of an immediate concern? Opening up access to the financial system acts as an incredible tool of empowerment for the previously ‘unbanked’.

We are seeing an exponential uptake of the mobile phone in the developing world and this represents an opportunity to both communicate with people and give people access to financial services, where traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ banks are either not available or out of reach. Surely this is a tool of empowerment that needs to be embraced and promoted? The key is not to leave those without a mobile phone behind, and government initiatives should support the uptake of mobile devices even further.

In addition, mobile devices can be used to circumvent corruption, whereby bosses and managers have used the traditional pay packet to siphon off ‘tips’, leaving workers underpaid. Recent reports highlighted a case study in the Ivory Coast which saw state workers increase their take-home pay packet significantly after introducing mobile payments. Another report highlighted the fact that police officers in Wardak province in Afghanistan saw their take-home pay go up 30% when their salaries changed to mobile payments.

Finally, mobile payments can be a way to drive financial access for women in parts of the developing world where purse strings are traditionally controlled by men.