Nothing is so powerful a force for change and for good in sub-Saharan Africa as the embrace of mobile telephone technology and mobile telephones as a primary source of information and human interaction. At least two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa’s nearly 1 billion people use mobile telephones daily. About the same proportion of persons in sub-Saharan Africa have ready access to mobile telephone coverage – to a signal (even if 2G rather than 3 or 4G).
Originally the adoption of mobile telephones occurred because traditional land lines were few, expensive, and hard to access. But once the potential of mobile telephony was appreciated, it quickly became the medium of choice for all communicators. It had the enormous advantage of needing few fixed installations; only cell towers were required instead of costly copper wires strung from pole to pole and exposed to the natural elements and to theft.
A second revolution was the bright decision by early mobile telephone entrepreneurs in Africa to discard traditional billing systems, replacing them with an insertable Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card capable of being purchased at shops across the continent. With SIM cards available in almost any reasonable amount, even poor Africans were able to buy air time without large investments. The companies were able to avoid costly and worrying accounting systems. And so the new medium proliferated.
Africans soon realized that texting was cheaper than talking. So they began first to gather information: How much was their wheat, maize, or tef worth in the nearest and in distant markets? They would not need to travel to those markets until prices were right, and they would know to which markets to go.
Subsequently, especially in pioneering Kenya, Africans began to use their mobile telephones to deposit and withdraw savings in special banking accounts. They pay bills. They borrowed money in the same manner. They donated to charity through their telephones. Now they pay taxes, too. They invest their savings, trade shares on stock exchanges, and transfer large sums locally and internationally to relatives. Remittances in that manner avoid large fees.
Since telephones have numerical keys it is easy to see how mobile telephones have become financial instruments as well as information accumulators. But what is equally transformative for sub-Saharan Africa, where the dissemination of ideas and knowledge has traditionally been laborious, is that the text message capacity of mobile telephones has made it possible for governments and officialdom generally to be much more interactive than ever before, producing a more enlightened and responsive citizenry. Likewise, citizens have been able to complain, to exercise their civil rights, and – using mobile phone photographic capabilities — to document their reports of official error.
For example, in urban KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), one angry petitioner finally persuaded the municipality to rectify sewage outflows that were inundating his house and small plot. The evidence was irrefutable and a hitherto unresponsive set of bureaucrats had to act.
In some countries, mobile telephone reporting by text message has alerted civil society organizations to bribe-taking in real time, rather than days later. Mobile telephone photographs have also been available to document the extent of such peculation. Incidents of bribery have also been reported to the authorities in such a manner that they could not be denied and action avoided. This is not to suggest that corruption can be cured via mobile telephonic surveillance; rather, the existence of corruption can at least be made more visible and middle-class countervailing forces aroused.
A number of recent election results (Senegal, Ghana, Zimbabwe, among others) have been monitored for accuracy by “quick counts” transmitted to central aggregating stations in capital cities or externally, for fear of local interference. More and more the validity of election returns will be verified in this manner, with mobile telephones providing the medium and enabling totals to be known in real time. Doing so makes it harder for illicit regimes to rig votes or otherwise interfere with outcomes.
There is a medical dimension to the embrace of mobile telephone technology. Women in Ghana regularly receive lactation advice via text messages. Tuberculosis patients are monitored and reminded to take their medicines via text messaging. There are new ways of obtaining almost instantaneous verification of malarial diagnoses by smearing a slide and putting it under special attachments to mobile telephones, for transmission and reading. One ingenious researcher in Africa has demonstrated how an otoscope can be fitted to a mobile telephone so that the ears of babies can be peered into and the results read in a distant clinic.
There is no end to the inventiveness of Africa and Africans. The mobile telephone is now sufficiently powerful and sufficiently inexpensive, and coverage across most sub-Saharan African countries sufficiently extensive, that Africans are able to benefit from a means of communication and a mode of sharing that, before the invention of the mobile telephone, had largely passed the continent by. Every day mobile telephones are thus used even more creatively than the day before. As “smart” phones become more available and less expensive, so this spread of technology will continue, almost superseding the need for heavy broadband widths. After all, computers are more efficient, but more cumbersome and more expensive to purchase.
For Africa, what is accessible via the mobile telephone truly, and for the first time, makes the global village a meaningful concept. Africans understand each other, and the vagaries of the world, in ways that were not possible before the arrival of mobile telephones. It also gives Africans the means to do so much more on a daily basis than ever before. Their household productivity has soared, as has their ability to demand more services from hitherto unresponsive governments or local bureaucracies. They can also learn their rights.
In Niger, the mobile telephone has also been employed to teach reading, and to drill basic arithmetical skills. Children therefore learn through the mobile telephone as well as adults. In these and in so many other ways, the mobile telephone has transformed the lives of Africans everywhere for the better. But these transformative endeavors are only an earnest of what is to come through the full use by more and more Africans of the capacity for change presented by mobile telephones. What Africans hold in their hands makes their lives better, and more sustainable.
This post first appeared on the blog Faces of Africa, www.facesofafrica.info, Nov 28