Apps for development: the African surge in mobile technology

Mobile technology has widely been touted as a useful tool for empowering the inhabitants of developing countries. Geography student Leo Marioni discusses the pros and cons experienced on the African continent.


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The mobile phone has swept across Africa with incredible rapidity. In 2000, 6 per cent of Africans owned the devices, and by the end of 2014 that number is expected to have risen to 56 per cent, or 620 million people. With the setting up of Tech Hubs, run by Africa’s younger generation of Africans, a number of apps and programmes have emerged that are serving to improve lives across the continent. With its propensity to undercut traditional infrastructure, the mobile phone has also received praise as a potential catalyst for development, but amidst such benefits and hopes also lie a series of problems.

Mobile technology has already proven to be a mighty boon to many aspects of African lifestyle. Safaricom’s M-Pesa allows the storage and instant transfer of money via mobile, transforming the most simplistic of mobile devices into the equivalent of a wallet or bank account. The system has been adopted particularly strongly in Kenya, whose large and relatively immobile rural population have poor access to banks and few safe places to store money. 33 per cent of the country’s economy is now conducted through M-Pesa.

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Healthcare and agricultural practice have also been bolstered by communication technologies, with tools such as iCow allowing farmers to receive direct advice from veterinarians concerning nutrition and their cows’ fertility cycles, thus increasing their productivity. Similarly, doctors in rural villages are now able to text patient symptoms to university clinics and receive diagnoses and treatment advice in return. In this way, the imbalance in medical knowledge between urban hubs and rural peripheries has started to be overcome. Additionally, universities can record the diagnoses in order to monitor the spread of illnesses, providing an early warning system for potential epidemics.

Mobiles not only reshape the lifestyles of their owners, but can also engender wider societal, political and cultural change. In India, for example, the mobile phone was hailed as a significant contributor to the 2007 victory of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the Utter Pradesh state elections, the first by a party led by a Dalit (a caste considered ‘untouchable’ in India). Mobile usage allowed BSP campaigners to circumvent mainstream media (often unsympathetic to Dalit causes) and strengthened dispersed Dalit networks. Social media is increasingly being used worldwide as a voice for the marginalised, and recently Africans have been using mobile applications to reveal and protest corruption.

However, whilst mobile technology has brought considerable benefits and holds a number of future possibilities, it is not without its drawbacks. Research has shown that, as phones have become more common, marital relationships have become strained, and that use of technology is often the domain of the head of household, with little access to the more vulnerable members of the family. Thus the mobile has, in some instances, been used as an object through which male dominance is reinforced.

© Adam Cohn / Creative Commons license

The erosion of traditional culture is also emerging as mobile use penetrates deeper into Africa. It is traditional for the Samburu people of northern Kenya, when needing to ask or tell someone something, to spend an hour or so beforehand hospitably catching up. With the presence of phones within the traditional community, and the subsequent cost of calls, the long discourses that were once engaged in as a matter of unspoken rule no longer take place, even when talking in person (personal communication with researcher). Another challenge posed by mobile phones is their increasing use in facilitating organised crime, ranging from poaching to human trafficking.

Mobile technology’s ultimate potential to drive socioeconomic development remains a matter of contention. Whilst ownership is growing, there remain those who are excluded, be it by lack of access to electricity, inadequate funds, or market structure. As a number of the developments in mobile technology are for-profit, consumers remain at risk from services being withdrawn and developers are at the mercy of foreign investment. Finally, a review of the signal strengths and Tech Hub numbers across Africa highlights a growing division within the continent, with Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya seeming to ride out ahead of their Sub-Saharan neighbours. As mobile development and foreign investment increase, there are those who are likely to be left behind.

Having witnessed the effects of the mobile phone in India, novelist Pankaj Mishra remarks that mobile technology is able to easily deceive, masking underdevelopment. In India, mobile phones are common in areas that have yet to benefit from working toilets. It seems unlikely that mobile technology will be the immediate developmental catalyst that has been hoped for. Nonetheless, the benefits that have been felt – the ability to communicate, to expose corruption, to pass on and receive knowledge – are invaluable to the lives of many Africans, and with a large youthful population soon to take the stage, such improvements are sure to increase.


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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