The writings of an intense journalist

Thursday, 10 March 2011


By Adetokunbo Abiola

Not unlike Europe, Asia and South America, Africa has embraced mobile phones as an important communication device. According to research by RNCOS Industry Research Solutions, the number of mobile subscription in Egypt will touch ninety million by the end of 2012, with penetration exceeding 100%, comparable to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Ghana clocked fifteen million subscribers recently, with the number expected to rise. Nigeria added a whooping 22 million mobile subscribers in 2008, with the level of penetration exploding. Even in tiny Rwanda, according to its technology minister, Romain Murenzi, cell phone revenue will reach $1 billion by 2012. Similar development takes place in Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and others. A report from the London Business School stated that over the last few years Africa has witnessed faster growth in mobile telephone subscription than anywhere else in the world.

More surprising is that much of the development is because mobile phones are applied to innovative tasks on the continent. In the last few years, South Africans in Western Cape trigger their supply of electricity by using text messages on their phones. Vodacom Tanzania subscribers pre-pay for their electricity via a mobile payment service. Ugandan handyman Jackson Mawa bought a solar-powered mobile phone to cope with unreliable electricity supply.

Much of the explosion in mobile phone users can be attributed to other innovative uses such as cash transfer, commodity price monitoring, weather forecasting, health research and medical diagnosis. In Ghana, MTN introduced Mobile Money in partnership with nine banks to provide people with a way to transfer money through mobile phones. In South Africa, Wizzit, a cell phone banking facility, evolved a system where customers can use any cell phone to deposit cash into their cell-based account in any post office, branches of Amalgamated Banks of South Africa or the South African Bank of Athens. In Zambia, Celpay allows businesses to pay for services and receive payment via mobile phone accounts. In Kenya, M-Pesa, a joint product of Vodafone/Safaricom mobile phone company, the Commercial Bank of Africa and Faulu Kenya, a microfinance organisation, allows for deposits and receipts of money through phones. In Rwanda, MTN, like in Ghana, introduced a mobile phone money transfer service. "The service has been quite successful in its uptake," said the Head of MTN Mobile Money in Rwanda, Albert Kinuma.

Africans use the phones for interactive purposes. In Uganda, people spend almost $600,000 last year to send greetings to their friends and relatives over the Christmas/New Year season. In some countries like Zambia, Ethiopia and Namibia, households devote as much as 10% of their income, compared to 3% in developed countries, to communicate with friends and family members through mobile phones. According to Synovate, a research company, South Africans, not unlike Europeans and Asians, save their contact information, birthdays, addresses, photographs and others in their cell phones and cannot live without them. ”With mobile phones, you also have the opportunity to be more interactive," said Andries Lombaard, Synovate's Clients Services Director.

Though low income and poor telecommunications infrastructure keep many Africans from using the internet through the computer before now, cellular protocol technology letting mobile networks offer inexpensive internet access is changing this. Internet protocol allows phones route all types of calls, whether they be voice, text messages, or mobile internet surfing sessions, as small packets over the network. According to MTN, around 80 to 120 million Africans, attracted by this last year, accessed 3 G mobile, many of them never having used the internet for web surfing and/or e-mails. To drive mobile phone internet usage upwards, MTN slashed data transmission costs in South Africa in April, reducing the cost of one megabyte of data from $8 to $0.33. MTN plans to cut the mobile data costs for users of its network in other African countries it serves, including Swaziland and Nigeria.

The growth of mobile phones can be attributed to another factor - mobile advertising. According to InMobi, an ad network, mobile advertising acceptance is highest in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. InMobi's survey, done in partnership with Digital Marketing Intelligence Agency and ComScore, also found, after 2,500 customers were interviewed in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, that Africans are among the most progressive in the world when it comes to mobile advertising. . "With advertising space shrinking in Zimbabwe newspapers," wrote Stanley Kwenda, a Harare-based journalist, in Mail and Guardian, "companies are making use of SMS to advertise. Their advertising has become one of the most lucrative businesses in the country for the thousands seeking to flee the country."

To remind patients to take their medicine and warn them if they are about to make a mistake, a doctor in South Africa, David Green, developed a cellular-enabled pill bottle. The Rwandan Ministry of Health unveils a new technology using mobile phones to support public health. IntraHealth International launches a partnership to provide mobile phones to African health workers who offer maternal and child health services, safe deliveries, obstretic consultations, HIV prevention and treatment.

Other major users of mobile phones are farmers and fishermen. According to New York Times, farmers in Niger Republic use cell phones to find out the market that gives the best price for their products. Amos Gichamba, a Kenyan, created a text message-based system allowing farmers to query dairy companies so they know how much farmers can charge for their cow milk. Many fishermen in Zanzibar, according to a BBC report, now carry mobile phones while they are at sea, using them to check market prices.

Just as internet connects large areas of China and India, mobile phones do the same in Africa. It reduces the transaction costs of financial services for the poor, especially those who do not have access to banks in the rural areas of Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa. City dwellers send money to relatives living in rural areas` through the same process. "Users do not need to have a bank account to use the service," said Carl Ashie, a mobile phone specialist at Zain, one of Africa's leading telecoms companies. South Africans often paid couriers the equivalent of $30-50 to deliver cash to relatives, now such transactions cost only $0.50 through mobile bank networks. "The greatest impact is in rural areas," said Beyers Coetzee, a rural community officer for Wizzit.

As in Asia, Europe and South America, the phones appeal to the need for expression and individualty among the younger generation. According to many surveys, people use them as alarm clock, camera and instrument to download music. According to a research by Synovate, almost a third of South Africans send and receive e-mail through mobile phones while 46% use them for internet browsing. Synovate research found out the phones are also used for social networking, instant messaging, video viewing and, to a much lesser extent, watching television.

Nowhere in Africa is the use of mobile phones more prevalent than Nigeria, which has the fastest growing mobile phone market on the continent. In Lagos, a megalopolis of 18 million, their use is as common as in New York or Mumbai in India. Sales of mobile phones have soared, and it seems everyone is tied to them in one way or the other. Everybody has one - people in public transportation, private vehicles, on the streets, in restaurants, etc. They are talking 24 hours a day. "It has really enlarged my business," said Mabel Ogunleye, selling crates of soft drinks and dealing with a customer on phone. Other parts of Nigeria experience the same phenomenon. Market women and bus drivers are not left out. Both the young and the old are in the game. "We're all connected and fully integrated into the information world, thanks to GSM," wrote a Nigerian blogger. "If your thing is mobile phone accessories and you're looking for a ready market, Nigeria is it."

Not just in Nigeria alone. The number of mobile subscribers in Rwanda hit 2.6 million in a country of 10 million, and the figure is projected to rise this year. With rapidly improving mobile infrastructure and intense competition among operators, the number of consumers will grow by 14% between 2010 and 2013 in Nigeria. The number of mobile subscribers in Kenya will grow by 15% between 2010 and 2013.

Businessmen and ordinary people are so optimistic about the mobile market they plan big for the future. Wizzit hopes to reach 16 million South Africans in a country where some 60% of the population do not have bank accounts. David Bangirana, a village leader in Uganda, sees potential in using a network of community leaders armed with mobile phones to educate and collect key data in remote places. Celpay, Safaricom and MTN are convinced the mobile telecoms sector has changed the lives of millions of Africans, catalysed economic development and strengthened social tires. "It means unprecedented, substantial change for ordinary people," said Lauri Kivinen, head of corporate affairs for the Nokia Siemen network.

Still, questions remain about the ability of mobile phones to catalyse development. Despite their prevalence, critics say the extension of mobile phone networks and services in recent years have been 'sub optimal'. Jenny Aker and Isaac Mbiti in Boston Review argue the promise of economic development in Africa cannot be realised merely by the use of mobile phones. Other questions concern universal access; inadequate investment in physical, financial and human capital and refusal of cell phone banking facilities to give credit to their customers. But these have not debarred Africans from buying into the industry. Like other continents, Africa's patronage of mobile phones cannot be easily overlooked, and it is indicative of a brave new world where people still find a way to forge ahead.


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