Africa’s Mobile Success

In some Americans’ minds, when the continent of Africa is mentioned, what comes to mind are images of half-naked children, death, famine, and poverty. Lots…

In some Americans’ minds, when the continent of Africa is mentioned, what comes to mind are images of half-naked children, death, famine, and poverty. Lots of poverty. For the more well-travelled or read, images of wildlife, rich cultural dances, and safaris come to mind as well. However, one image seems to yet have made an impact on the western world: Africa’s ever-growing mobile tech industry.

Mobile technology has taken over Africa by storm and changed the way of life so tremendously in ways that many Africans would never have dared to dream. Graham Wood, a policy developer for a non-profits working in Africa, says that, for many African countries “it is the most revolutionary development since independence.”

About ten years ago, many African countries had the on real functioning fixed line phones. This is mainly because in many cases state-owned companies mismanaged them, and allegations of corruption and financial looting surfaced. Fast-forward five years and the number of mobile phone subscribers is growing at about 30-percent each year. As of last year, there were over 620 million mobile connections in Africa, according to the GSMA African Mobile Observatory  report on Africa. Forecasts for 2012 suggests growth will reach 735 million.

The impact of the growth of mobile technology can be seen in every facet of life in Africa. Here are the key areas:


Imagine walking into a grocery store without your wallet; no cash, no cards. Instead, you pay for your groceries by entering a few digits into your phone and sending a text message. Then imagine yourself paying for your well-deserved vacation flight, your rent, and your utility bills from the comfort of… anywhere, really, with no more but your cellphone and, well, cellphone reception. Hard to imagine right?

This is the reality for about 15 million Kenyans, each of whom uses the cellphone technology, by mobile service provider Safaricom (part of the Vodafone Group). It is an innovative mobile transfer solution that enables customers to transfer virtual money between cell phones. M-pesa literally means mobile money since “Pesa” is the Swahili word for money and the “M” is for mobile.

Launched in 2007, M-Pesa was aimed at customers who did not have access to a bank account either by choice or because they did not have sufficient income to justify a bank account. It is a mobile money transfer solution and not a mobile banking service. What makes it different is that the customer does not need a bank account, only a mobile phone in order to perform transactions. M-Pesa provides "mobile money transfers" between cellphone users rather than banking services however, it has become hugely popular because of its simple registration procedure, and wide availability especially in rural Kenya and it’s convenient.

In 2011, Vodaphone made $15.6 million from the innovation and the service was used to move over $11 billion. As for its five anniversary this past March, M-Pesa had well over 14 million users.

Based on the success of this innovation in Kenya. The technology is being tried in neighboring countries such as Uganda and even as far as in the distant Brazil. This has a direct impact on agriculture as farmers in the rural area, who in most cases have little or no formal education, can easily transact business without worrying about carrying a lot of money about.


Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General famously quipped, “For everyone, everywhere, literacy is…a basic human right.” However, this is not the case in many places across Africa. According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2010 sub-Saharan Africa, more than one in three adults cannot read, 176 million adults are unable to read and write, and 47 million youths (15- to 24-years-old) are illiterate. That is about to change if mobile technology has anything to do with it.

There are numerous innovations stemming from mobile development that are having a huge impact on the education systems in Africa. Nokia, in collaboration with the South African government, came up with MoMaths. This is a free mobile mathematics service, which provides learners and teachers access to interactive mathematics learning materials using a mobile delivery platform combined with a social media application for peer-to-peer support.
In Kenya grade school children have benefited from the introduction of Kindles to their classrooms, thanks to Worldreader. This has increased the level of interest these children have in reading not only because of the increase in availability of reading materials but also because children like gadgets. E-limu, from the Swahili word for education,”elimu” is yet another African innovation by tech savvy technology development youth in Kenya’s iHub, the African Silicon Valley. Teachers are reporting increased interest in course work thanks the interactivity of learning brought by these devices.


The Arab Spring captured the world’s attention in 2010. These revolts were led by the ordinary people harnessing the power of social media. Citizens tweeted and Facebook-ed their way to freedom and democracy from dictatorship using the one weapon that was readily available — their mobile phones. Thousands of images and hours of video shot by regular citizens brought these revolutions to peoples’ attention with almost minute-by-minute updates. So powerful was the impact of social media that in Egypt, President Mubarak ordered that the mobile phone networks be put off in a bid to slow down the opposition.

Mobile technology has also been used in South Africa to tackle the problem of xenophobia when its citizens started to attack foreigners living and working in that country. An emergency taskforce set up NO TO XENOPHOBIA , a national SMS system for citizens to respond to the violence. It offered various services including options to show opposition to the attacks, to report attacks and to make donations towards the campaign.

A similar platform was set up in Kenya following the post election violence of 2007 and 2008. “Ushahidi”, Swahili for witness, a crowdmap where citizens can contribute content about certain key happenings. Anybody can contribute images or video to Ushahidi and update people of breaking news and events. It has been used in the Democratic Republic of Congo and was also used to track the break out of swine flu a few years ago.


Cattle farmers in Kenya are now better able to plan thanks to iCow, a mobile app billed as “the world’s first mobile phone cow calendar”. This SMS and voice service enables dairy farmers to track their cow’s gestation, serving as a midwife. iCow also helps farmers access veterinary doctors, wide variety of extension services and a cattle market. For a country where agriculture is a huge part of the GDP, this app is certainly a welcome revolution.

It is truly eye opening to hear about these technology developments in Africa, a place where not much positive news is reported. It is certain that though Africans may have few resources and their democracy may not be as developed as much as here in the US or across Europe, when it comes to technology and innovations they are certainly on track.

Image courtesy: Seismonaut Africa

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