Sunday 17 January 2010

Mobile Phones transforming Africa

Interesting article from The Guardian:

The mobile phone is turning into Africa's silver bullet. Bone-rattling roads, inaccessible internet, unavailable banks, unaffordable teachers, unmet medical need – applications designed to bridge one or more of these gaps are beginning to transform the lives of millions of Africans, and Asians, often in a way that, rather than relying on international aid, promotes small-scale entrepreneurship.

While access to a fixed landline has remained static for a decade, access to a mobile phone in Africa has soared fivefold in the past five years. Here, in one of the poorest parts of the globe, nearly one in three people can make or receive a phone call. In Uganda, almost one in four has their own handset and far more can reach a "village phone", an early and successful microfinance initiative supported by the Grameen foundation.

One recent piece of research revealed how phone sharing, and the facility for phone charging, has been an engine of this small-business revolution. Particularly in rural areas, a small investment in a phone can first create a business opportunity, then maximise its reach by overcoming the possible limitations of real or technological illiteracy – because the phone operator can make sure the call gets through, and can cut off the call at exactly the right moment to avoid wasting any part of a unit. And what a difference a phone call can make.

Often the mere fact of being able to speak to someone too far away to meet with easily can be a transforming experience. For fishermen deciding which market is best for their catch, or what the market wants them to fish for, a phone call makes the difference between a good return on the right catch or having to throw away the profit, and the fish, from a wrong catch. For smallholders trying to decide when or where to sell, a single phone call can be an equally profitable experience.

But establishing market conditions is just the start. Uganda has pioneered cash transfers by phone through the innovative Me2U airtime sharing service, which allows a client to pay in cash where they are and transmit it by phone to family or a business associate hundreds of miles away. They receive a unique code that they can take to a local payment outlet to turn into cash.

But the market leaders are M-PESA, a mobile money system set up by Safaricom, in its turn an affiliate of Vodafone, in Kenya (although it operates in Uganda now too). Less than three years old, it has 7 million customers and, according to some sources, processes as much as 10% of Kenya's GDP.

At a recent International Telecommunications Union session, Nokia's Teppo Paavola pointed out that there are 4 billion mobile phone users and only 1.6 billion bank accounts. The huge scope for providing financial services through mobile phones represented by that differential is a tempting prospect for the big players.

But, as one British contender, Masabi, has discovered, it is one thing to develop a secure mobile payment system like their Street Vendor - which works on old handsets and in most scripts – and quite another to get a deal with the international financial regulators that police cross-border cash flows.

Masabi has worked with another UK company,, that aims to help NGOs and other not-for-profit organisations use mobile technology.

Ken Banks, founder of (Kiwanja means "earth" in Swahili) has pioneered a two-way texting system called FrontlineSMS that allows mass texting from a single computer-based source to which individual subscribers can reply.

So for example, health workers attached to a hospital in Malawi can "talk" to their base to seek advice, pass on news of patients' progress or ask for drug supplies. The data can be centrally collected and managed. All that's needed is a mobile signal – far more available than an internet connection.

FrontlineSMS is a free download: the aim is not to tell users what to do, but to help them work out how to apply the technology to their own problem.

The only barrier to even greater mobile use, apart from international financial regulations, are the taxes levied by national governments that can make the cost prohibitive. According to one recent report, despite exponential growth in countries like Uganda there is growing evidence that what for millions is a life-changing technology risks leaving out the poorest.

1 comment:

Ps3 accessories said...

Mobile phones are no more a luxury.They are a necessity for better connectivity and free flow of work and travel.Nice post here.