#09 Prejudice
Geraldine de Bastion

Time for New Stereotypes - Mobile Africa

In his short essay "How to write about Africa", Binyavanga Wainaina astutely explains how the images used on the front covers of books or magazines that deal with this subject matter should always include an AK-47, prominent ribs or naked breasts. If a person is depicted, the author should use the image of a lonely warrior walking into the desert sunset or that of a mother. She should either be large bosomed enough to nurture the whole world or too famished to feed her baby. Any person portrayed should preferably be clad in Masai, Zulu or Dogon dress. (p. 6)

This is the prevalent image of Africa. The international community and media have played on these stereotypes for the longest time. Africa has always been the dark, hopeless or lost continent, ridden with disease, famine and war. Or it has served as the setting for adventure stories, tribal fantasies and sunset safaris. "Made in Africa" either brings to mind images of Bob Geldof holding starving children or the romantic depiction of Elton John's circle of life, with tourists watching the big five drink from waterholes from their chalet, drums beating somewhere in the distance.

Today, it is time for a new cliché. Today, the Masai on the front cover should be holding a mobile phone. Mobile phones have spread across the continent like no technology before and have had an unprecedented impact on its development. Mobile telephony has revolutionized the information supply chain, communication habits and trade in Africa.

Mobile telephony has revolutionized the information supply chain, communication habits and trade in Africa.

From zero to hero

This spread of mobile networks has had a huge impact by connecting people who had not yet been reached by fixed line telephony. In the mid-nineties Nigeria, for instance, had a population of around 100 million people and a total of only 100,000 landlines. Growth in mobile telephony in Africa has surpassed operators' most optimistic predictions. 90% of all the phones in Africa are mobile and the current mobile penetration rate is around 65%. However, some countries have developed faster than others: in 2012 in Kenya, for instance, mobile penetration is close to 70%. It is around 60% in Nigeria, while in Uganda only around 40% are connected.

Low cost 2G internet-capable phones comprise around half of all mobile handsets in Africa (250 million), and are a major driving factor. Nokia is the king of handsets in Africa with a market share estimated at 70-80%, followed by Samsung, Sony Ericsson and LG. Simple feature phones are allowing the African masses to browse the Internet straight from their phones. Opera's recent statistics reported over 115 million Opera Mini users in June 2011. Since June 2010, the number of unique users has increased by nearly 100%.

There are only an estimated 7 million smartphone users in Africa, and Nokia and Blackberry are the most popular brands. But smartphone manufacturers are already tapping into the African mass market with newer models. Suppliers like Huawei and Samsung are moving into new markets on the continent by offering smart phones at affordable prices of around 100 US dollars. In 2011, Google launched the IDEOS Android Smartphone in Kenya priced at less than 0. Both feature phones and smartphones connect users to the Internet and can be used to deliver targeted and relevant information, either through SMS-based information services or applications. In addition, feature phone services like Snaptu or Binu are bringing application-based services to feature phones.

These are important developments. On the whole, Africa still has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to Internet connectivity. At the end of 2010, only around 10% of Africa's population was connected to the internet via a computer, leaving Africa far behind both the world average (30%) and the developing country average of 21%.

Hello bandwidth

"Welcome to Tanzania - Enjoy full 3G coverage with Zantel" reads the SMS received upon arrival at Dar es Salaam Airport. Broadband is rapidly replacing dial-up as the preferred method of access. Most African countries now have commercial DSL services, but their growth is limited by the poor geographical reach of the fixed-line networks. Improvements in Internet access have therefore been mostly confined to the capital cities thus far. However, the rapid spread of mobile data and third-generation broadband services is changing this, as mobile networks are making Internet access available to many areas outside the main cities for the first time.

Until a few years ago, Africa had few to no connections to international submarine cables, leaving large parts of the continent unconnected. This changed in 2009 and 2010 when the East African coast was connected to international submarine cables. In other parts of the continent, additional fiber optic cable systems have introduced competition to a market that had been subject to monopolies. Wholesale prices for Internet bandwidth have come down by as much as 90% based on satellite access (which costs around $ 600 per month), and the cost savings are slowly being passed on to the retail level as well.

In South Africa, MXit, a mobile social network, is more popular than Facebook.

More than a phone

Mobile phones are communication platforms. Most people use their phones to connect to others through voice and SMS as well as mobile social networking and Internet-based communications. Apparently an African woman touches her hair 37 times a day, but touches her phone an average of 82 times a day. This fun statistic from the Praekelt Foundation shows how important mobile phones are as the one device that always accessible and to hand. In South Africa, MXit, a mobile social network, is more popular than Facebook. And the most popular social network itself only managed to make it big by cutting deals with mobile providers to allow free access to the Facebook 0 service. Apart from the private and social uses of mobile communication, it is also a tool for political communication used to promote political participation and transparency, for instance:

  • Development organizations like UNICEF use the U-Report SMS tool to find out more about their target audiences and give young people in Uganda a voice. The free poling system currently reaches over 140,000 people.
  • Back in 2007 the Nigerian Network of Mobile Election Monitors (NMEM) developed a system using FrontlineSMS technology that allowed voters to report from their local polling stations via SMS. In the national elections of 2007, 10,000 messages were sent by citizens reporting on procedures at polling stations that included irregularities and incidents. Contradictory reports from the same polling station were carefully compared and verified. The system was deemed a success and used again in Nigeria's 2011 elections as well as in a number of other countries in Africa.
  • Abayima turns an SIM card into a publishing platform, transforming the world's four billion low-end feature phones into cheap e-readers. This innovation caters to the prevalence of feature phones on the African market and aims to create new ways of reaching those users, particularly in times of media repression or news blackouts where communication with the outside world is cut off. Abayima was started in Uganda when the 2011 elections led to mobile communication networks being monitored for messages. The government searched for critical voices by tapping into the communication of average people, and the Abayima project was a reaction to this surveillance. Abayima allows citizens to exchange information even when the mobile providers can't be relied upon.

Mobile phones are also information or application platforms. The growing African mobile telecommunications industry has brought forth a number of innovative uses in different areas such as the health sector. When health workers travel to care for isolated patients, they are often not connected with central clinics. Many gaps and shortcomings in health systems can be addressed using simple communication technologies adjusted to suit local conditions. Medic Mobile is a tool set that supports community health workers and clinics in coordination and management, communication with patients and satellite clinics, logistics and supply chain management, routine data collection, and mapping of health services. Medic Mobile serves people in countries including Mali and Malawi in northeast Africa. The toolset is based on existing open-source platforms, including FrontlineSMS, OpenMRS, Ushahidi, Google Apps, and HealthMap.

One of the most prominent examples of mobile innovation coming out of Africa is M-PESA. Safaricom's M-PESA service allows users to conduct financial transactions via their mobile phones without the need for a bank account. M-PESA was launched in 2007 when the formal financial sector served just over a quarter of Kenya's adult population. Kenya had only 450 bank branch offices, fewer than 2 per 100,000 people. M-PESA is simple: a user pays in cash and can transfer that money to another user. The transaction is safe to use and the recipient can access the money by giving a transaction code to one of the over 35,000 M-PESA agents in the country. Over 15 million Kenyans use M-PESA and today, five years after its launch, about 20 percent of the country's GDP is transferred through the system. Europe and the rest of the world are looking at Kenya for inspiration in the field of mobile payment services, and trying to learn from the M-PESA experience.

A number of significant developments have been spurred by this mobile money service as banks try to adapt and create their own mobile money services and even integrate the M-PESA approach into their banking systems. Additional innovative applications are being developed on top of M-PESA:

  1. A crowdfunding service based on the mobile payment system is currently in development. The Africa Unsigned platform, which helps African musicians get funding from fans to record music, will launch a mobile payment system in collaboration with M-PEASA in Kenya.
  2. The recently launched Mdundo service allows users to download local music. The system currently uses scratch cards that contain a unique PIN which allows users to download 5 tracks straight to their phones, but it is also about to launch a mobile payment service.

In their "Spotlight on Africa - Mobile Statistics & Facts 2012" video, the Praekelt Foundation makes it very clear they believe mobile technology is reshaping the future of the African continent. With smartphones already outselling computers 4 to 1 and improvements in infrastructure, a creative application development scene is emerging in many African countries. The much touted mobile revolution in Africa is just beginning.

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