Africa is Rising! Technology, like cell phones, is aiding Africa’s fantastic leap forward. But are the poorest of the poor left behind?

Africa is often demeaned as the “Lost” or “Hopeless” continent due to 1st World Afro-pessimism that’s gorges itself on a media diet of AIDS, genocide, raping armies, Biafra, Darfur, Somalia, matchstick children crawling with insects, tyrants chopping off limbs, ad nausea. The majority of Westerners believe Africa is a trapped nightmare; they expect no transcendence from the natal land of homo sapiens.

Attention, world, wake up! Africa is rising!

Nigerians are the most optimistic people on Earth (Ghanaians are 3rd), notes Gallup. Why not? Nigeria is a “Lion King” – roaring with annual 8.9% economic growth from 2000-2010. Africa was a slow-growth Hippo; now it is a Cheetah. The once-stagnant continent is sky-rocketing with 6 nations in The Economist list of 2000-2010 Top 10 money-boomers; another forecast for 2011-2015 has Africa placing 7 of 10 in the fast-gainer column. Goldman Sachs’s enthusiastic report is titled, “Africa’s Turn.”

Africa’s tomorrow isn’t a dismal “Heart of Darkness” narrative loop – the continent is dawning! The developed world’s fixation on Africa’s failures is silly and blinkered – it’s like viewing a majestic bull elephant by staring only its anus.

Why is Afro-optimism elevated, soaring like flamingo flocks at Lake Nakuru? Answers will be elucidated in this and four forthcoming essays that analyze the progressive impact of techo-devices on the continent’s welfare. This initial article praises the benefits of mobile telecommunication devices, i.e…..

Cell Phones: The Arrival and Enormous Success

In 1986, Miko Rwayitare founded Telecel, Africa’s first cellular service provider, in Zaire. In 1993 a Sudanese businessman – Mo Ibrahim – followed his example, with Celtel in East Africa. In hindsight, their moves were destined for meteoric success because – counter-intuitively – Africa is appallingly weak in every infrastructure category. The continent is rocky in roads (29% paved), dim in electricity (25% have access), torpid in sanitation, education, hospitals. Want a landline? Ha! Tedious and expensive endeavor, plagued with corruption and inefficiency. In Kenya, business firms wait 100 days for a landline and pay an average bribe of $117 (20% of the GDP!).

Africa was stymied in the 90’s, infected with isolation. Exasperating for a communicative continent where garrulousness is arguably a cultural norm and social organizing is tribally instinctive. A link was needed, an escape, a way out, a tool to make.. all the aborted and decaying connections… mesh… a device was crucially needed.. for individuals… to… synchronize…

Mobiles… Enter.

The resulting, accelerated numbers? In 1998 – approximately 4 million cell phone subscribers. By 2013 – there will 735 million subscribers.

Today there are 8X or 9X as many cellphones in Africa as there are landlines. Mobiles – connected via base stations powered by diesel generators – stampeded across savannahs, deserts and jungles. The Christian Science Monitor notes, rather pissily, that today, “more Africans have a mobile phone than access to a clean toilet.”

Cell phones replaced the bicycle and radio as the most prized possession of many Africans. Prepaid service plans – utilized by the vast majority – cost only a few dollars per month, with texting 1/7 the price of voice service. Businesses share phones and destitute rural outposts purchase a “village phone.”

“We Can Hear You Now!” is shouting across Africa today in 3,000 native languages as everyone dials or texts everyone for every possible reason. AFRICA IS TALKING. Social, economic, and political advantages are exploding. Below I list 12 benefits that Africa’s cell phones provide:


Many African schools and universities are almost devoid of books. Recognizing this, the Wikipedia Foundation and Orange – a French telecommunications company – are providing free cellphone access to wikipedia later this year. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, believes access to global cyber-libraries will benefit African education “from primary school level through universities and in research communities as well.”

Cell phones aid African academia in multiple ways:

* School lectures are recorded by the devices, for later listening.

* Calculators provide help with math.

* In Niger, where illiteracy is high, adult students who learned on a phone-based curriculum progressed 30% faster than pupils in normal literacy classes.

* In South Africa, the social networking company MXit set up a math tutoring service, so perplexed pupils can query live tutors instantaneously via their mobiles.

* Distance learners – a large demographic in Africa – are similarly enabled.


Access to banks is frequently inconvenient in Africa, due to rarity and poor transport connections. Luckily, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Mobile banking was invented in Kenya by, who developed today’s popular M-Pesa service, the world’s first mass mobile banking system.

Mobile banking allows payment to be processed via text message. Cell phones essentially serve as credit cards, to pay bills, order take-out, buy travel tickets, etc. They’re also used to order “e-pesa” funds at corner stores or to trade stock shares.

“Africa is the Silicon Valley of banking,” says Carol Realini, executive chairman of Obopay. “The future of banking is being defined here… it’s going to change the world.”


Africa is atrociously understaffed with medical experts; in Tanzania there’s only 1 doctor for every 33,000 patients. Cell phone interconnection is a life-saver, providing survival in numerous ways:

* Rural doctors in Uganda can text-request information from Kampala hospitals.

* Ambulance and emergency medical services have expanded throughout the continent, duplicating the “Telemedicine” success of India.

* Epidemiologists and disease control specialists send out text info on outbreaks of TB, SARS, and Ebola, informing health authorities and at-risk villages.

* In Ghana, MOTECH gave cell phones to midwives, to enable them to better serve pregnant and post-natal women.

* In Liberia, a network allows all of the nation’s 143 doctors to call each other, for free.

* In South Africa, thousands of people get appointment reminders by text message from the nation’s largest HIV treatment center. South Africa also offers free text counseling on HIV.

* In Uganda, a quiz about HIV was sent to 15,000 citizens via text message. The mHealth result was 40% increase in attendance at testing appointments.

* Throughout the continent, text messages remind patients to take their medicine. Handwashing campaigns have also been instigated, via text.


The proliferation of cell phones has expanded job opportunities and provided a jump start to African finances, in ways ranging from the obvious to the extraordinary.

Mobiles enable unemployed workers to call potential bosses about job opportunities, plus a Kenyan service – Kazi560 – sends out job postings via SMS alert.

The cell phone industry has employed millions. Celtel staffs its 500,000 outlets, and phone cards – that add minutes to cell service – are sold everywhere, often by solo operators. Additionally, entrepreneurs in off-grid areas have set up “charging stations” with car batteries and generators.

The cash-uptick is startling. Three reports suggest that for every 10% rise in cell phone usage, the GDP rises an estimated .6 – 1.2%. Another study noted that when cell phone coverage is introduced to a community, employment rises 15%, particularly among women.

Family Cohesion

Strapped by job scarcity, many African families are physically separated from each other. Migrant husbands who journey hundreds of miles to work at Johannesburg steel factories or Nigerian oil rigs can stay in touch with their dear ones, via cell phone. Friends and relatives can also be contacted throughout the world – especially in Europe – wherever they were flung by the African Diaspora.

Additionally, there’s a convenience familiar to western parents: African teenagers socializing out late at night can be located, scolded and retrieved.


Every self-employed person in Africa quickly grasped the revolutionary advantage of owning a mobile. Two examples on opposite sides of the continent are:

* Moroccan drivers with cell phones can order parts quickly to repair their mini-buses. Tourists needing rides to markets and mosques can also contact them instantaneously.

* Masai herders with mobiles can call their gem broker immediately if they discover tanzanite – a rare purple/blue gemstone that exists near Mt. Kilamanjaro.


Cell phones in Africa benefit the tillers of soil in numerous ways:

* Weather reports with up-to-date drought forecasts are provided via text message.

* Planting advice is available, online and through text services.

* Farmers use mobiles in their battles against locust plagues, aka “hopper bands.” To pinpoint the location and direction of the swarming short-horned grasshoppers, farmers telephone each other, and agricultural authorities.

* Disease diagnostics are available, and there’s a “Mobile Crop Disease Surveillance” app alarm delivered via text message.

* M-Farm app assists farmers, via texting, in pricing their produce correctly.

* M-Farm identifies regional markets with the highest demand for specific produce, so farmers can sell their goods at optimal price.

* Cellphones enable African farmers to communicate easily with wholesale brokers, individual buyers, seed suppliers, machinery operators, etc.


Cell phones have been successfully used in many African nations to oppose tyranny, enhance democracy, and prevent corruption. Here’s a sampling of it’s accomplishments:

* During elections, people take cell phone pictures that document fraud, intimidation, and voting abnormalities.

* Improprieties in government are texted to community groups.

* Mobile phone usage in the north African nations of “Arab Spring” are well-known. Previous to that, rioters in Mozambique (2010) and Kenya (2007) mobilized via texting.

* In Ghana, 1,000 observers texted voting tabulations to electoral headquarters; the result was a quick verification of of winning candidates and measures.

* Warnings of election unrest and confrontations can be received via texting.

* In Nairobi 2007, code writers developed “Ushahidi” – a data-mapping open source program that collated reports of political confrontation received via text and email. Ushahidi is now the world’s most popular platform for mapping political upheaval and large-scale emergencies. 128 countries have utilized it in crises, such as Haiti’s earthquake and Japan’s tsunami.

Drug Safety and Availability

6.3% of South African hospital admissions are due to dangerous drug reactions from counterfeit prescriptions. To allay this, Ghanaians and Nigerians can now text in the barcodes on the medical labels, to authorities who identify them as fake or genuine.

Tanzania also uses cellphones in stock checking of pharmaceutical supplies. Aided by this technology, the nation’s “stock-outs” (when clinics run out of drugs) were reduced from 77% to 26%.


Anglers from the Gold Coast to the Congo River to the shores of Lake Victoria to the bays of Zanzibar and the coral reefs of Mauritius are all benefitting from cell phones.

* Before baiting their hooks, they can find out what’s best to fish for, in terms of price and demand.

* After securing a day’s catch of snapper or tuna, they can seek out the best fish market to sail to, for a healthy return.

* If you’re a small village fisherman or fisherwoman, you can keep your perch tethered live and fresh on an underwater line, until a sale is made via telecommunication.

Wildlife Preservation

Cell phones are assisting the survival of Africa’s iconic and oft-endangered large mammals.

* Game wardens can communicate with each other on the whereabouts of poachers.

* Zoologists are putting cell phones around lion’s, zebra’s, and elephant’s necks, in waterproof collars, as tracking devices. This enables researchers to follow the pachyderm’s movements, at a reduced cost of 60%.

Developmental Assistance, i.e., Foreign Aid

Critical food and medical supplies intended for remote areas in distressed African regions are often delayed and waylaid in their distribution. Cell phones streamline the delivery process because they enable aid workers to bypass the red-tape and corruptibility of bureaucracies.

Concern Worldwide launched an early-intervention program that utilized text banking. 44,500 villagers on the verge of penury and starvation were successfully delivered cash via “m-Transfers.”

Lastly, it important to note that African commenters and bloggers equipped with mobile phones are now joining the global cyber-conversation. News is accessible now to those who couldn’t afford the $1 price for a newspaper. When Africans go online with their mobiles, what are popular searches? Manchester United, Rihanna, Toyota Land Cruiser.

Help is Needed

Hundreds of millions of Africans have upgraded their economic, social, and political conditions with cell phones, but “there is still a large number of people who cannot afford them,” Catherine Ngahu, chair of Kenya’s ICT, told SciDev.Net. The cost has been reported as $20 for a “local phone” in Kigali, Rwanda, and as ”$50 or less””$50 or less” in South Africa.

Even the lower price strains the budgets of 300 million Africans who subsist “on less than $1 day”, and it’s an unreachable total for 120 million ultra-poor Africans who survive, barely, on less than 50 cents daily. Additionally, there’s the cost of the service. In Niger, a 1-minute phone call costs 38 cents, “40% of the average household”‘s daily income.

Popular phones in Africa are the “Nokia 1100” (Nokia commands 58% of the continent’s market) and the “Samsung E250”, but every model is more than welcome. We’re also eager for batteries, connectors, cases, accessories, and laptops.

Have a cellphone you want to contribute? Mail them to me and I will forward them to a school in a rural area of southern Madagascar who needs them. The school is operated by Dustin Eirdoch.

my address: 955 Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA 94133


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