Can You Hear Us Now?
Why technology is Africa’s latest, greatest poverty fighter
A farmer uses a cell phone to check international coffee prices on a small-scale plantation in western Uganda.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Back in the mid-1990s I was living in a semirural area on the slopes of Mount Meru, just outside Arusha, Tanzania. Now and then I had to make a phone call back home to America.
This was not then an easy thing to do. I would venture out to inquire about using one of the few phone lines at neighboring houses. Often, these lines would be broken, or working spottily, and it could take weeks to arrange a repair.
Usually, I would end up knocking on the door of a business in town (owned by friends of friends), trying to be unobtrusive as I listened to the crackly sound of the voice of the woman I would later marry. Our words seemed to run into each other, and we each had to wait a minute to be able to hear the other. In the lag, the distance seemed tangible.
These days, when I’m in Africa, I tell people this story and they laugh. They laugh as if I was telling them I used to hunt with rocks and start fires with sticks. Technology in the developing world has changed so much and so fast that it’s almost hard to believe.
Last year I took a bus across West Africa. Somewhere in the middle of Burkina Faso, as I sat looking out the window at the dusty trees, I took a phone out of my pocket and called my wife. This time, the sound was clear. There was no delay. It was almost as if she was sitting next to me.
I may have been the only passenger dialing America, but I was far from the only one with a phone. There are now 415 million mobile subscribers in Africa, and two-thirds of the world’s 5 billion users are in the developing world. India and China alone added 700 million new cell phone contracts between 2000 and 2007, and the numbers continue to rise.
Among the many ramifications of this change, perhaps the biggest is economic. Now, not only can people stay in touch with their friends and family, they can also talk to business partners, get market reports, and recruit clients. Mobile technology provides a significant boost to the incomes of those on the bottom rung of the ladder. In fact, a study from the London Business School concluded that each 10 percent increase in mobile phone use meant a 0.6 percent boost to GDP in developing countries.
In Uganda, farmers can send text messages for commodity prices or weather reports. In South Africa, a software service called Mobenzi allows the unemployed to find and conduct work via cell phone. Jobs and revenue are created as millions of people buy and sell phone cards. In Ghana, some people even build towers for subscribers to climb (for a fee) so they can get reception in hilly areas.
The rising popularity of cell phone technology in Africa is resulting in startups with big business potential. A new service called PesaPal allows people to shop by mobile phone. Founder Agosta Liko lived in the United States for several years, working in banking and information technology, before moving back to Kenya.
“There was no consumer payment system,” Liko says. “People couldn’t open PayPal accounts, so I decided to build something. Now I can pay my guys a good wage, which is the best way to alleviate poverty.”
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