Africa’s Communications Revolution

Technology is advancing development argues Portland Nairobi’s Beatrice Karanja

Over the last decade, Africa has undergone a momentous communications revolution. Wherever you travel across the continent – from the bustling big cities of Cairo, Nairobi, Lagos and Johannesburg to the thousands of tiny rural towns and hamlets – the most two most common features are the cell phone and the cyber cafes.

The familiar long queues for public telephones have been almost replaced by the ubiquitous mobile phone. Those without access to their own use the little shops, nestled between the tin-shacks and high rise complexes, which operate as cybercafés or as what is known as “Simu Ya Jamii” in East Africa. A “Simu ya Jamii” is usually one person seated in a corner with a couple of cell phones in hand that are “rented” out for a call.

Africa has seen the fastest growth in mobile subscribers in the world. The numbers have increased from 280 million in 2001 to 450 by the end of 2009, changing the way nations and citizens live with each other. The speed of the revolution has been so great that the fixed and expensive networks of the developed world will never be needed.

This simple technology has become a great social equalizer. For rich or poor, in cities or in villages, the mobile phone has become the basic means of communication. The social benefits have been enormous. Communities, businesses, individuals are now using their phones to perform important, daily tasks from mobile banking, to checking agricultural information and even accessing health data.

In fact, the continent stands as a case study to illustrate how the digital divide can be fast bridged and how communications can shape the future of development.

In Uganda, the new mobile technology is being used in schools to enable pupils in remote communities to access knowledge and educational resources. In Ghana, on the other side of the continent, a network of sites has been developed to share medical information with health care workers wherever they work.

But much more needs to be done to harness the power of technology if Africa is to meet its development and poverty eradication challenges. This has been recognised by the African Union whose 14th summit in Addis Ababa directly addressed the vital importance of communications technology in realising development targets and the Millennium Development Goals.

This commitment has already been put into action through new programmes and policies. The East African Community, for example, has partnered with One Laptop per Child to deliver 30 million laptops to school children in the region. Rwanda already has more that 20,000 pupils enrolled in the programme. At the same time, African Governments have been putting in place policies to liberalise the communications markets to improve connections between the continent and its citizens with the rest of the world.

The quicker lessons and experiences are shared, the quicker we will see progress on the development, social and economic needs of the continent. They will also speed up the shift from the old top-down development model which depended on aid to one where partnerships play a much bigger role – and partnerships which have information and technology at their centre.
The benefits of crossing the digital divide have been quantified in many studies, but the widely quoted statistic of a one per cent increase in Internet penetration resulting in a $176 per capita increase in an African country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a clear indication of what this means to governments and their citizens across the continent.

Africans know better than anyone that on the far side of the digital divide sit the dramatically improved possibilities of a better education; good chances of matching skills to employment as well as entrepreneurial opportunities.  The communications revolution has opened Africa to e-commerce, outsourcing, virtual enterprise, education and remote medical assistance which all have such a powerful impact on people’s lives.

For example, in 2008, the Syngenta Foundation launched the Agriculture Index Insurance Initiative are as it is known in Swahili the Kilimo Salama (“safe farming” in Swahili) scheme. Its aim is to explore and develop the potential of micro insurance for small-scale farmers in Kenya. Through their phones, farmers are now able to subscribe to the insurance scheme which means that they can insure selected farm inputs at the local retailers and pay half the premiums. The phones are also connected and linked in to weather stations, which allows the farmers to cash in on unclaimed premiums against their crops depending on predicted weather patterns.  What this means is that African small scale farmers are now protected against droughts and the government policies to eradicating poverty and hunger are now a reality. Food security is now easily achievable.

Initiatives such as the “Kilimo Salama” demonstrate the market opportunities that the proliferation of mobile phones and broadband are creating. In this sense, the opportunities for private sector growth and sustainable development are complimentary. By encouraging and facilitating financial sector development through the use of new communication technologies, African countries can both boost economic growth and fight poverty.

What’s clear is that this has been Africa’s year. The World Cup successfully helped dispel old myths and prejudices and allowed the continent to show its modern face to the world. There is a new focus on opportunities rather than challenges. The communications revolution is helping expand these opportunities for the citizens of the continent and all who wish it well.

Beatrice Karanja is an Associate Director at Portland and runs our Nairobi office.