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Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe

Mobile Phones Propelling Africa’s Renaissance


Africa’s latest renaissance is propelled in substantial part by the remarkable indigenous technological transformation of a hand-held computerized gadget – the mundane mobile telephone – into a powerful instrument for human advancement.  Africa pioneered the gathering and transmission of merchandizing and market information. Then it invented and popularized banking and financial transmission by mobile telephone. Now peoples all over the continent receive medical reminders and diagnostic updates through the same medium. In many instances, too, the humble mobile telephone is being used to preserve and advance democracy. Technologically, the use of mobile telephones for human advancement is much more innovative in Africa than anywhere else.

Since texting is cheaper than talking, Africans initially used mobile telephonic capabilities to gather information quickly and systematically by a few thumb movements instead of by traveling laboriously and randomly on foot, and then only learning about individual markets. . A farmer could obtain the best returns for his agricultural produce or his animals if he knew the current prices for wheat, maize, bananas, millet,  cassava, tef, cattle, or goats in near as well as far markets. That is what texting made possible. Farmers would not need to travel to those markets until prices were right, and they would know to which markets to go.  Productivity and efficiency could thereby be enhanced, as could significantly reduced travel and opportunity costs.

Subsequently, especially in Kenya, where the first breakthroughs occurred, Africans began to use their mobile telephones to deposit in and withdraw savings from special banking accounts. They now pay bills. They receive their wages. They borrow money. They donate to charity through their telephones. They pay taxes, too. They invest their savings, trade shares on stock exchanges, and transfer large sums locally and internationally to relatives.  Sending remittances in that manner avoids large fees. In a part of the globe where very few persons hitherto had standard bank accounts or means of shifting sums to kin or to providers, the texting function of mobile telephones has now made it much easier for people everywhere, even those living in remote villages, to enter the monetary universe.

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. Even the deaf can now communicate – by text.  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 used text messages and attached videos finally to persuade a lagging municipality that sewage outflows were inundating his house and small plot. The evidence was irrefutable and a hitherto unresponsive set of bureaucrats acted.  In other cases, missing street lights and road signs were replaced, thanks to the transmission by mobile phone of photographic proof.

Licenses and permits of all kinds have been obtained more easily, as well.  No longer are bureaucrats behind imposing grilles able to interpret regulations arbitrarily; empowered citizens learn their rights by text, and proceed to exercise them, if necessary by documenting abuses.

Africans may soon embrace a start-up information-gathering and transmission method from India. There an enterprising radio reporter and producer realized that large populations lacking literacy and access to reliable sources of national and local information would benefit from receiving news on their mobile telephones, by text.  His new service supplies the millions in embattled Chhattisgarh State.  Africans will doubtless emulate his innovation, region by region or country by country.

There is a burgeoning medical dimension to the embrace of mobile telephone technology, especially significant in a part of the world that suffers routinely from rampant diseases and a shortage of medical personnel. For instance, whereas Europe boasts 3.6 physicians per 1000 people, poor places such as Malawi count 0.02 physicians per 1000 and even South Africa’s numbers are no better than 0.77 per 1000. Thus, whereas North Americans can rapidly run down to an emergency room or a trauma center, Africans who are ill, or who are carrying a seemingly comatose baby, have to trudge miles on foot to a barely-staffed clinic.

For those reasons, outgoing and incoming text messaging abilities are a godsend.  Women in Ghana regularly receive lactation advice via text messages.  Tuberculosis patients are monitored and reminded to take their medicines via text messaging. A flashing light on a smart telephone can remind someone to keep an appointment.  Rwanda has distributed free mobile telephones to thousands of community health workers so that they can keep track of pregnant women, send emergency alerts, call ambulances, and offer updates on emerging health concerns. In Uganda, “Text to Change” alerts the public to medical issues.

M-Pedigree, in Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana, is a drug-monitoring system that permits consumers and health workers to send a text code to a central hotline to verify quickly whether about to be purchased medicine is genuine or counterfeit.

Smart telephones are also capable of acting as sensors and diagnostic assistants. The computing power of such telephones is being harnessed to take blood pressures, monitor blood sugar levels,  hear heartbeats, and even  (using photographic capacities) to peer down throats, look into ears, and examine body lesions from afar. No matter how remote the patient, he or she can thus tap into ready-made medical support systems; such do-it-yourself medicine is uploaded to smart telephones and sent on to health providers in a distant city.

There are new ways of obtaining almost instantaneous verification of malarial suspicions .One method uses a slide smeared with blood that is put under special attachment to mobile telephones. A British innovator has designed a mobile-phone powered surface acoustic wave device to diagnose malaria remotely. Another ingenious researcher in Africa has demonstrated how an otoscope can be fitted to a mobile telephone so that the ears of babies can be investigated and the results read in a distant clinic. In some places stethoscopes and smart phones have been paired in order to listen to suspect hearts.

Text-messaging brings about social change. 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 peculation and other corrupt behavior.  Incidents of bribery have been transmitted 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, Kenya, and 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 are verified in this manner, with mobile telephones providing the medium and enabling results to be known in real time.  Doing so makes it harder for illicit regimes to rig votes or otherwise interfere with outcomes.

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. Fortunately, 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 requiring few fixed installations; only cell towers were necessary 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.

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. Personal 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. Mobile telephones also give 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.  .

In Niger, the mobile telephone (using the letters on the keys) has also been employed to teach reading, and to drill basic arithmetical skills.  Children as well as adults therefore learn through the mobile telephone. 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 enriching.

This post appeared in Diplomat & International Canada, April-June, 2015, under the above title.



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