The mobile revolution in Africa, Hope or Hype?

Rikus Wegman | 14 January 2008, 1:24 pm Last friday de balie in Amsterdam was host to the fill the gap conference: Mobile revolution, hope or hype? The 5th annual Fill the Gap conference started of with a short introduction about where the mobile phone is at the moment in Africa. The focus in this introduction was on new ways of use for the mobile phone that are especially created for African use. A good example of this new use can be seen in the possibility to send family or friends money via sms. By sending an sms to a certain number and attaching a certain amount of money to it, the person who receives the sms can go to a local telephone-cash point and collect the money. More on this specific subject can be read on the African Matrix blog. After this short introduction of where mobile telephones are at the moment in Africa the first speaker was Christoph Stork. Stork is senior researcher for the LINK Research Centre ICT Africa (RIA) in Johannesburg. He talked about the research network of universities and think tanks from 18 African countries from where he did research into the use of mobile phones in SME. One of his conclusions was that; for the mobile to be sustained in Africa one of the most important things is creating a business climate. He also found that access and use have a positive impact on profit in both small, middle and ‘big’ SME’s. This looked quite obvious to most of the people in the room butt Stork defended himself by stating that an important piece of scientific research is showing and proofing the obvious. He closed of his argument that was filled with a lot of different numbers, percentages and calculations by naming the problems that mobile phone users are having at the moment. He talked about problems with the high prices and the low capacity of the networks.Next up was Lotte Pelckmans from the African Studies Centre of the University of Leiden. She was on the verge of starting research on the ways mobile telephones were able to drastically and revolutionary change social relations in Africa. Because the project was still in a starting phase she could not show any interesting outcomes at the moment but she did make the audience aware of the huge importance that Africans attach to their mobile phone. Even if they don’t actually have money to make a phone call they still use their phone in special ways. The obvious examples of this way of telephone use where beeping and flashing. When you are beeping or flashing you only let your telephone ring once in order to let the person on the other end know that you are either thinking of them or that you need them to call you back. In my point of view this is not a typically African thing because I know a lot of young kids in England who use the same way of communicating when they are low on money. Another example that she mentioned that I did find really interesting were the 3 second calls in Mali. According to Pelckmans there is a provider in Mali that has a service in which the first 3 seconds of a call are for free. She said she knew a lot of people who used this service by making really short calls and then calling back. These conversations can last up to 2 hours….. The next speaker that was interviewed was Shafiu Shaibu. Shafiu Shaibu from the SEND Foundation in Ghana is interested in how information resources can transform the life of farmers in north-eastern Ghana. As a soy-bean former he found out personally the importance of knowing the different bean prices from around the country to show where the best proffit can be made. They use huge chalkboards to show all the different prices from around the area. They tried to use internet to exchange the price information, but the costs of the access via VSAT were too high. He is looking into the possibility to start using mobile phones for this information exchange because this would be a cheaper form. Ethan Zuckerman was the next speaker in line. He stated that it is important to understand why African people are interested in mobile phones. He showed that there are almost 100 million handsets in sub-Saharan African and illustrated the awareness that people have of the mobile phone by showing that 97% or Tanzanian people are aware of mobile phone use and are ‘able’ to make a call in case of need. These numbers to me were quite astonishing because they show that although there are a lot of technical and financial problems surrounding mobile telephone use in Africa there is a lot of interest in the medium. People in Africa are aware of the mobile phone and very much willing to use the medium. According to Zuckerman “Mobile is a powerful tool to make your own media”. In activism it is a really good tool to use. It offers what Zuckerman calls “sousveillance”, which is the bottom-up new form of surveillance and serves as a powerful new way of exposing and showing ‘Africa’ to the rest of the world. He also gave an interesting examples of new ways of mobile use. In Africa there is a lot of counterfit fake medicine available. In most pharmacies you run a great risk of instead of buying the medicines you so desperately need you wind up with a piece of chalk or other fake medicines. Zuckerman was telling about a pharmaceutic company (mPadigree) who dealt with this problem by sealing their medicines with a code that people could sms to a certain number. If the code is correct and not already in use the medicine would be real and usable. This to me once again was a great example of new ways to use mobile phones that could really mean something to help the people in Africa. According to Zuckerman, the most important thing is getting a tool that is available for everyone. With mobile we are not there yet….. but we are closer than ever. The question is if by closing the digital divide we are creating new divides is also an interesting question that Zuckerman touched upon. As a business man you have to have a mobile, if you don’t have one you’re excluded. Does the mobile phone create new divides? The conference ended with an interview with Kenyan professor Firoze Manji. The interview started with Manji explaining the current situation in his home-country. (There is a great list of bloggers who are blogging about the current Kenyan situation on Manji wanted to make clear that it’s people who make revolutions, and that no technologies ever does. He stated that Pencils have contributed more then mobiles and suggested to do research into the pencil instead of the mobile phone. According to Manji the phone won’t make the difference, it's how people use the tools available. After a short discussion between Stork and Manji in which Manji doubted the significance of Stork’s research. To me, one of the most important and interesting things about these kind of conferences is to see so many people with an interest in ICT in Africa together in one room. People from Hivos, IICD, oneworld, the tropeninstitute and a lot of other organizations were present and it was interesting to exchange views. For me personally the conference was a big success with a lot of interesting people present. from the Masters of Media at the University of Amsterdam