Leapfrogging Technology: Mobile Penetration

I recently came across this intriguing chart showing the total number of tweets emanating from the top 20 countries in Africa, in the Economist. Ghanaians apparently tweeted 2,150 times in that 90 day period, compared to 6,000 tweets per second on busy days in Japan or America.

But this stat hides the underlying fact that the World Wide Web has virtually touched the lives of every African, penetrating every corner of the continent to the remotest of villages. While internet penetration is only 13.55% in Sub-Saharan Africa, mobile penetration top 50% for the continent as a whole and 60% in countries like Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. In comparison, less than 1/3 of rural Ghanaians have access to electricity.  The total number of subscribers on the continent is over 85% of the population. The quarter to quarter growth is over 8% with millions of new subscribers coming on board each month. Investors cite the African telecommunications/ICT sector as one of the top sectors for the best returns – beating all types of manufacturing and consumer goods. Even without electricity, villagers/traders are using mobile phones to access the internet to gain info on prospective markets, commodity pricing, weather, and best practices.

Small African villages may lack adequate cement, brick, running water, clinic, electricity, or even a proper place to defecate, but every single village – no matter how small or remote, has at least one building painted in purple and green – the color of the Kuwait based mobile operator Zain in East Africa; or red – the color of British Vodafone in West Africa; or yellow – the color of South Africa based MTN in West/Central/South Africa; or the bright lime-green Safaricom service provider in East Africa. I’ve never even seen this phenomenon in Asia. In every village, the most important building (usually made of brick compared to otherwise hut/mud dwellings) is the one owned by one of the telecom giants. Even poorly educated people understand these brightly colored buildings symbolize opportunity – the ability to gain market information, not getting ripped off by the middle men, and feel empowered.

Thinking from the larger scheme of rural development and poverty alleviation, it is obvious how a huge role these large multi-national telecom giants can play in increase the living standards of even the poorest of the poor – simply by their sheer outreach. It’s not just mobile internet access, but of course mobile-banking: deposit, transfer, and access in a safe and secure manner. This is especially pertinent in countries like Nigeria and Kenya where public security is a major issue. Instead of carrying a bag of cash to a relative up-country, people can go to one of those yellow stands down the street and exchange cash for mobile credits and transfer it remotely. This is why paradoxically, more authoritarian and less well-governed states like Nigeria and Kenya have been able to attract wider-usage of mobile banking services compared to a relatively democratic and liberal country like Ghana.

In comparison, international organizations like the World Bank, UNDP, UNEP, World Food Programme etc only indirectly deal with the average person – mostly through municipal/district assemblies and of course the central government. Occasionally there will be these due-diligence trips where reps go talk to villagers. But the idealistic image people have of NGOs is persistent enough that we sometimes fail to recognize what organizations/entities actually consistently touch every face of poverty.

Zain and Vodafone are not only visible in a village, but they are visible to every person. There may not be a single MTN worker in the village, but they be sure paint their footprints.

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