What Do Africans Do With Mobile Phones?

On the 3rd of December, 2007, Nigerians woke up to read about the sustained growth of the positive surprise that is now synonymous with the nation’s telecommunication sector – telephone subscribers are now 46.2 million! The usual comparison with the not-close-to-one-million at the beginning of the millennium leaves one wondering if this race will continue until the 50% mark hits the front pages. While Nigeria’s teledensity to 27.42 is phenomenal, the core of the growth comes from the mobile sector, with total number of connected GSM lines at the end of September standing at 43,593,310 lines and total number of active GSM lines (subscribers that have made calls within the last 90 days) was 36,692,806.

That implies that 84% of the total number of connected lines were active within the 90-day period prior to the collation of data by the Nigerian Communications Commission, a figure which is still leaves an impressive growth rate by many standards. With fixed wireless and CDMA services accounting for many more hundreds of thousands, the Nigerian mobile space remains amazing. Add the news of 3G and 3.5G services being rolled out by GSM operators and the image of increased access to ICT resources becomes more magnificent. A September 18 2005 report painted the picture appropriately: “In the past 10 years, subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa have risen from 72,000 – excluding South Africa – to a forecast 25.5 million [in 2005].” Note that in 2006, the number of mobile phone users in sub-Saharan Africa exceeded 100 million ! And by 2007, 100 million was even less than the number of mobile phones users in only Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt!

While completing a recent assignment for a US-based institute with interest in the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools for advocacy by developing countries’ non-profits, I came across startling discoveries around the use to which non-profits and individuals are putting mobile phones. From the popular missed calls (“flashing”) to high-end mobile databases for advocacy (and in some cases, product/service marketing), mobile phones are increasingly put to innovative uses. Thus, the need to know what Africans are using this platform to do is important. Considering the ongoing revolution and competition in the telecommunications sector (especially among GSM companies), only unserious nations will ignore the potentials of positive and negative mobile phone usage by individuals and institutions. Building on earlier research efforts, it is important to find out what Africans are using their mobile phones for – making/receiving calls, paying bills, transferring money, conducting business, accessing the internet, listening to music, watching video, etc.

It is important for Africa’s relevant stakeholders – across government, civil society and the private sector – to documents the use to which mobile phones are being put. This will help with various opportunities such as identifying best practices (one is not surprised to know that some rural folks are already changing the stories of their lives through mobile phones but where are they and what exactly are they doing); discovering policy improvement opportunities (considering trends in usage and increasing opportunities, how can policy positions encourage the use of mobile phones to bridge the gap between the informal and formal components of the economy?); discovering socio-economic applications (how about possible massive use of mobile phones in education and improving livelihoods as is now evident in entertainment and some successful business models), and deliberately building a database and information-pool that can inform national planning.

And this is also an opportunity for governments to make true their romance with the idea of making African nations globally competitive – for example, Nigeria seeks to become one of the world’s top 20 economies by 2020 – by ensuring that the mobile phone addiction in Africa is maximized for mobile government (mGovernment) roll-out. If the word addiction caught your attention, then you should look around you when next a delay is announced, for example, at the airport – people pull out their mobile phones and get busy!

By the time you are reading this, I will probably have commenced discussions with relevant institutions that should provide a platform for the implementation of this key research need. If you would like to discuss the process further, please write to me at me[at]gbengasesan.com. Let’s build a bridge between the rising addiction to mobile phones and possible socio-economic development opportunities. Ever asked yourself this question: How did Africans cope without mobile phones?

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