Africa’s technology revolution

Mobile phones have taken off on the African continent. Photo by kiwanja/ Creative Commons

Mobile phones have taken off on the African continent. Photo by kiwanja/ Creative Commons

Mobile technologies in the developed world might not directly save lives, but in parts of Africa they can change the fortunes of entire communities in a short space of time. DiA blogger Adam Routledge analyses the impact of Africa’s technological boom.

There is a technological revolution taking place across sub-Saharan Africa. There are now more than six million Nigerians using Facebook, almost 90% of whom access it via a mobile device, according to social media watchdog SocialBakers.

Over the past decade Africa has been responsible for the largest uptake in mobile phone usage in the world. Between 2003 and 2008, phone use among African nations went up by a staggering 550%. In fact, many people in rural communities began using their first mobile phone before ever getting a landline, something almost unimaginable in the UK. Many parts of the continent have high uptakes and there are now few countries with very low usage, mostly East African nations, where in many cases less than 20% of the population use a mobile phone.

What, then, are these mobiles being used for? It would appear that the most popular uses for this readily available technology are more practical than they are in the UK: while apps are taking off in cities like Nairobi and Johannesburg, it is in more rural parts of countries like Uganda, Nigeria and Gabon where a real difference is being made to people’s lives. The uptake of a simple practical technology like a mobile bears similarities to the popularity of radio on the African continent, where both personal computers and televisions are expensive, difficult to repair and many companies refuse to invest in creating and maintaining the necessary networks when uptake is often so low.

While the dot-com revolution in developed, western countries focused on the personal computer and easy access to web pages, the tech revolution in Africa is more practical and centres around text-based communications such as SMS and the wider ‘m-products’ market.

One of the groups which has adopted the use of SMS-based technologies quicker than most is farmers and food producers. For farmers in the UK, price variance is an important issue; if they can make a few extra pence per kilogram of potatoes sold to a supermarket it’s great news. In Africa, the survival of families depends on it. Prior to the emergence of such technologies, if a farmer in a rural location wanted to check the price he might achieve for his grain harvest he would need to walk or drive to a local market. It is now possible to check the price of grain locally or nationally with the sending of a text message through sites such as M-Farm.

African farmers can monitor conditions for their crops thanks to new technology. Photo by TREEAID/ Creative Commons

African farmers can monitor conditions for their crops thanks to new technology. Photo by TREEAID/ Creative Commons

With so many issues for rural farmers and food producers to cope with, mobile technologies allow them to build safeguards, to adapt to new situations and deal with difficulties before they become catastrophes. A mobile phone won’t make it rain for longer or alter the seasons but platforms like FarmerNET can enable communities to thrive through the sharing of useful information like the weather forecast, the tracking of possible diseases and regulating prices between a group of farmers and buyers.

Another interesting discussion on mobile technologies revolves around how mobile phones and development interact. On the surface a cheap, available, easy-to-use communication technology seems like the panacea for development across the globe but under the surfaces there are still challenges to overcome.

Firstly, while adults’ slower adoption of mobile phones is a source of humour and often ridicule in the UK, in developing nations it can be the difference between a charity project or a farming co-operative succeeding or failing. If external assistance from charities and NGOs is required then this will be costly, and any slump in progress can often mean overseas aid is slow to get off the ground. The best chance for the successful adoption of mobile technologies lies with local early adapters, and just as in the UK, this often translates to the sons and daughters of the community.

The bigger problem is faced by the entire development sector, and it is the will to change. Even after learning to use the necessary technologies, many farmers struggle, or simply refuse, to move away from traditional sources of wealth such as moneylenders and middlemen. Sadly, it is often the case that poorer farmers are also less well educated; they are often taken advantage of by moneylenders, locked into long-term contracts that leave them reliant on those other than themselves. It is the younger members of rural communities to whom we might look in order to bring about change in this area, though it is true to say that, with mouths to feed, many farmers are not in a position to take up new technological advances overnight.

It is difficult not to rush to compare the implementation of mobiles with a number of fishing rod based metaphors. However, the final notable difficulty on the road is the quality of the content. Much like in the developed world, it is not always clear who is producing the data or for what purpose it is being circulated, and major companies have been quick to adapt to the m-products market and are often happy to provide content with their phone packages, whether this content is useful to the end user or not. In the future it might be better if more focus were placed on the collating and subsequent vetting of vital information.

The successful use of mobile technologies among rural communities rests and falls on whether or not the powerful and wide-reaching m-products can be put to good use by those with little prior experience of such technologies. It is clear that mobile technologies cannot change the climatic conditions for poor farmers in rural parts of sub-Saharan Africa but they could allow them to adapt to changes quicker and seek the advice of their peers on a local and global scale.

Finally, it also worth noting that, unlike some development projects which rely upon Africa being solely the receivers of aid and expertise, the adoption of mobile technologies in rural communities allows Africans to take control of their own destiny, producing local answers to local questions, using technology to close the distance between communities, and in doing so changing the face of a continent so often perceived as being years behind the west technologically.

 


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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