In the world’s poorest continent, only one-in-three people have access to electricity, but far more have a mobile phone. Africa is the fastest growing region for mobile phones in the world, and the largest market after Asia, according to the GSM Association. There are now an estimated 700 million SIM cards in Africa.
Mobile phones overcome some of the endemic problems that have stifled progress on the continent; poor infrastructure (both in transport and power transmission), sparsely populated rural areas and widespread poverty.
The basic feature phones, that are still the most popular, are vital for this environment. With small non-touch screens they have a long battery life, though still people find innovative ways to recharge them, for example using car batteries.
Most have an FM radio, still the greatest communications medium in the developing world, and many have a small torch.
In east Africa, “mobile money” is used as frequently as paper money — the region accounts for four-fifths of the world’s mobile payment transactions. Using text messages it is possible to send money to another mobile phone that can then be cashed at tens of thousands of participating agents. It is estimated that half of Kenya’s GDP moves in this way, mostly using the pioneering service M-Pesa, which has 14 million users.
Mobile phones have fostered communication like no other technology ever before, linking villages in a split second that would previously have taken days to reach on foot or by road. Information services via text message allow farmers to learn more about best practices, market prices and weather conditions. The unemployed can subscribe to text alerts about job vacancies instead of having to travel.
Alan Knott-Craig, a 35-year-old South African tech entrepreneur, said: “It’s lighting up the dark continent. People are talking with each other. In the old days, you couldn’t talk to your family if you were a migrant worker; now you can. The next level is money. When you light it up with money, you’re giving people social freedom as well as economic freedom.”
Local entrepreneurs in hubs such as Accra, Cape Town, Lagos and Nairobi have the advantage of knowing Africa’s particular needs when competing with the Silicon Valley giants. Numerous social networks specifically for mobile phones have sprung up, offering cheap or free communication for their users. Mxit and 2go from South Africa have 44 million and 20 million users respectively, the latter mostly in Nigeria. Others like Motribe and FrontlineSMS offer virtual communities.
According to the Internet World Stats Web site, Africa still has the world’s lowest Internet penetration rate at 15.6 percent. Desktop PCs and tablets such as the iPad are relatively rare and have been leapfrogged by the more appropriate technology offered by the mobile phone. For example, in conflict-riven Somalia fierce and unregulated competition has made mobile phones affordable and prevalent, whereas Internet penetration stands at just 1.14 percent of the population.
Among Africa’s broadband-linked minority, Facebook and Twitter, blogs and online magazines, music and video sharing sites, are thriving. That includes the political realm: Atrocities that might once have been hidden by an authoritarian regime can be quickly exposed to a global audience, while the follies of leaders are held up to scrutiny and mockery as never before. Shrewd politicians such as Rwandan president Paul Kagame have created their own accounts to remain connected and avoid the kind of mass mobilization seen in the Arab spring.