Human Development, Private Enterprise and Mobile Communications in Africa

In Nairobi and Mombasa, people of all economic backgrounds are able to transfer money on their mobile phones. Meanwhile, Somalia, which is just starting to emerge from a 20 year long period of anarchy, without a working central government and over run by rival militias and pirates, is actually leading the trend toward the cashless economy. The rare visitor to Mogadishu might be forgiven for getting that old Helsinki feeling, as just about any expense from paying for a taxi to a drink (non-alcoholic of course) at the bar is done by mobile phone. The link between the spread of mobile telephony (there are 500 million mobile phone users in Africa – 40 million in Nigeria alone) in Africa makes it the ideal ground to test the phenomenon known as ICT4D, that is Information and Communication Technologies for Development, which holds that (ICT4D) refers to the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in the fields of socioeconomic development, international development and human rights. The theory being that better quality and increased availability of information and communication technology and practice promotes the overall development of society.

The ICT4D theory has mostly been managed by NGO’s and international development agencies. However, the benefits and participants of the ICT4D concept are universal, helping to promote foreign and local investment and stimulating the private sector. Five years ago, Kenya launched a mobile banking platform (MPESA) which allows customers of Safaricom (a local mobile communications provider owned by Vodafone) to do mobile banking and to transfer funds from one phone to another. MPESA operators around Kenya dispense cash to users who have received a code from an MPESA user. It is a way to transfer funds from cities to rural areas and to promote the use of banks and bank accounts. With MPESA, and the like, moreover; refugees no longer have to endure long and expensive journeys to reach the city in order to get cash. This allows them to increase productivity as they can focus on their work and help finance a small business with the funds that arrive via text message.

The concept is very compatible with the notion of micro-finance, as discussed here a few weeks ago.  The service is used by 65% of the Kenyan population and is helping to spread wealth throughout the country, setting the stage for the use of mobile communications toward socio-economic development. Banking and payment methods are merely one of the more immediate effects of the spread of mobile technology; health and nutrition have also benefited from the phenomenon. UNICEF has used text messaging to help determine the quality and level of nutrition of children in Malawi. Coded SMS messages with medical data can be sent in real time from a medical doctor in a rural area to a well equipped facility, and then decoded by software, which then evaluates the data according to a set of values and then responds accordingly to the local health care operator. Farmers can use Mfarm, to help sell their products; they send SMS’s to a customer’s phone number with the product type and Also useful mobile apps: Kenya in a group of young women has created MFarm, which allows farmers to send an SMS indicating their product and their market where they wish to sell it, receiving a corresponding reply.

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Such is the success of mobile communications that even the absence of infrastructure can be overcome. Many African territories are still not covered for wireless (or landline for that matter), therefore, some users choose the ‘wireless mesh network’ (WMN), a system based on nodes of information allowing two phone to communicate at short distance thanks to special software. Multiple nodes, not more than 100 meters apart are then linked tin order to create a small network. Indeed, Africa is becoming a ‘research and development’ ground for new technologies. There is a digital divide not only between countries but also within countries. E-learning, e-medicine and e-government are still marginal applications that represent the efforts and hopes of international organizations and governments in bridging the current digital divide, both within and between countries. Access to the internet and digital information has become an important human and economic development issue, as the gap between the availability of the internet in developed countries far outpaces that of the developed world. The UN agency ITU considers the question of international internet connectivity as a matter of urgency. Internet access and mobile communications are expected to accelerate the rate of internet and access to information technology in continents such as Africa. Evidently, Africa is one of the fastest growing mobile telecommunications markets in the world and it is one of the best examples of technology, private enterprise and human development coming together.

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