Challenged by shortcomings in its infrastructure, Africa is actually seizing it as an opportunity to use cellphone technology in ways that are even more forward-thinking and creative than those currently in use in the Western world.
In a piece on CNN.com, technology writer Toby Shapshak, who is based in Johannesburg, says that Africans have become so reliant on the cellphone that most of the continent has never even bothered to get land lines—making it not just a “mobile first” continent but a “mobile only” continent.
“In Africa, hundreds of millions of people will experience the internet for the first time on a 2-inch cellphone screen. Probably in black and white. And probably only as text,” Shapshak writes.
Rather than rushing into smartphones, the vast majority of Africa’s one billion people are still using the older cellphones that most of the Western world abandoned a decade ago. The reason is simple: without regular and reliable access to electricity, most Africans need phones with a long battery life. So they don’t have much use for smartphones that seem to lose their battery life halfway through the day. They’re using older phones with batteries that can last up to week. And the most common app is FM radio.
The use of SIM cards is one area where Africans show their creativity. There are 700 million SIM cards in the continent, but many Africans have two or three cards, and perhaps a 3G data dongle.
Shapshak explains why: “Because cellphone operators charge interconnect fees to make a call to another network, many people simply have a SIM card for each network and swap them out of their phone when they want to make calls. Savvy to the various offers—including ones for cheaper on-network calls in the evenings and weekends—family members or students use different networks at different times of the day to stay in touch.”
Because computers are too expensive for the majority of Africans and require steady electricity, most Africans have completely jumped over that stop on the technology ladder.
“A cellphone is cheaper to buy, cheaper to run and is always on you,” Shapshak writes. “In South Africa, for instance, Google says 25 percent of its searches during the week are via mobile, rising to 65 percent on the weekends.”
Africa is leading the way in something called “mobile money”—using mobile phones for money transactions—which is projected to become a $617-billion industry by 2016, according to researchers Gartner, who predict mobile transactions will reach $171-billion this year.
According to Shapshak, already 80 percent of the world’s mobile money transactions are happening in East Africa, driven by Kenya, the epicenter of mobile innovation.
“Other services are also flourishing: ways for consumers to check whether medicine is authentic and hasn’t expired (mPedigree); for farmers to find out where they can get the best price for their produce (Farmerline); for people to do real-time live mapping of disasters or elections (Ushahidi); and for communities to communicate with each other (Mxit and FrontlineSMS),” Shapshak writes.