“The mobile phone is to sub-Saharan Africa what the steam train was to 19th century Europe,” commented the Financial Times in 2016. “The mechanical workhorse driving social and economic transformation.” With mobile phone ownership racing ahead across the continent, mobile technology offers many possibilities for Africa.
There’s opportunity for education, micropayments, and health, as well as access to services.
But data suggests that fewer than one in three people on the continent is yet online: participation rates vary hugely across the continents’ many markets. Eight key markets are storming ahead in mobile participation, including Tanzania, Nigeria and Egypt, but migration to mobile broadband is accelerating across most markets.
African countries vary hugely in terms of key measures such as household wealth, literacy and economic development, but many share challenges such as bringing unbanked populations online and uniting rural populations with key services.
Mobile is likely to be the key to bringing new users online, With battery life likely to be hugely extended, and falling data and handset costs, barriers to digital participation are falling away as mobile phone ownership becomes increasingly ubiquitous across Africa.
The importance of financial participation
Mobile technologies are emerging as a way to fast-track the residents of developing economies to financial participation. That includes access to financial services, particularly money transfer, and participation in the banking system.
For those people that don’t have bank accounts, mobile technologies can provide money transfer options so they can get paid or pay others. Mobile access can also help bring people into the banking system, which offers many possibilities both for them personally and for the wider economy.
Mobile offers a way to reduce the costs of activities such as moving money digitally, meaning that even low-income households can be drawn into financial services.
It’s thought that financial inclusion may also benefit those that have traditionally been excluded from finances, such as women and minority groups.
The purchase of a cheap basic handset and SIM card enables people to get involved with mobile banking for around the $10 mark in some markets. It also unlocks possibilities such as accessing electricity supplies by making it easier to pay utility bills.
Kenya was one country that moved forward very quickly in terms of financial inclusion. Mobile banking helped many more Kenyans get a financial account: in fact between 2011 and 2014 financial inclusion leapt from 42% to 75%.
Some of the poorest households benefitted too, with growth of 200% in this period. It’s thought this may have helped these households become more financially robust because they can easily get family to transfer money to weather difficult periods such as an illness.
Mobile adoption and subsequent participation in payment services could support the growth of eCommerce across the continent. Other emerging markets have seen low banking participation hold back the expansion of eCommerce because consumers rely on cash-on-delivery, which causes costly headaches for vendors.
Thanks to mobile payment options, African eCommerce may be able to avoid the lags caused by cash-on-delivery.
Mobile’s impact on language barriers
In language-diverse Africa, mobile phones could help break down language barriers. With many languages often spoken within a single political territory, governments aren’t always catering to all language groups and language groups are often economically alienated.
Mobile phones can help bridge these barriers by bringing in translation tools, enabling cheaper access to services in local languages, and connecting dispersed speakers of the same language so they can help each other solve problems.
Some commentators refer to the ‘babelphone’ (a reference to the Babel fish, a fictional creature that provides translation services), as a device that could very well emerge and act as a translation tool for the user across any language they encounter.
This could really help unite the continent’s economy by helping Africans communicate and transact with their neighbors. Regional integration is seen as significant to economic development, and mobile technology could be a significant contributor to this.
Mobile technology also unlocks educational possibilities and offers greater opportunity to both learn and practice skills in new languages. Talk-to-text technologies are starting to emerge that could help bring illiterate populations into the digital fold.
But it could still be hard to engage with excluded groups such as illiterate populations and those that don’t speak dominant languages.
Research in Uganda and Nigeria suggests that English speakers in these countries are far more likely to own a smartphone compared to non-English speakers. Younger people and men are far more likely to have a phone than older ones and women. Mobile phone technology may help overcome social problems but access to it is still unequal.
A bright future
It’s exciting to consider the further possibilities for the future of mobile technology across the African continent. Unlike many Westerners, who come from a desktop-first perspective, Africans are more likely to have a mobile-centric outlook on technology.
There’s a whole new generation of innovators emerging who understand the particular challenges and opportunities in their markets, and where mobile fits into answering these possibilities. The continent could start to become a new cradle for innovation in the mobile arena.
Some of the hot areas of innovation could include more unified payment systems that solve the lack of interoperability between the different operators, and solutions to language-related problems such as free fonts, encoding etc.
New solutions need to be found to bring services to illiterate speakers of minority languages. There’s also a host of possibilities for content authoring in a variety of languages.
African enterprises are also developing exciting mobile-based technologies in the health arena, such as phone handset blood testing facilities.
At present many of Africa’s mobile innovations are coming from major international corporations but smaller enterprises are starting to emerge. It’s likely these more lightweight operators will be able to crack problems at local level, supported by an emerging start-up tech culture.
Not only are these operators likely to understand and be embedded in the local market, but they are more likely to be able to innovate at low cost compared to bigger rivals.
Recent history suggests that price always trumps features in many African markets, so the lowest cost handset is usually the most popular. It will be interesting to watch how the future of mobile unfolds across this region of the world and how the technology drives the continent forward.