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Mobile technology for transformation in Africa Posted in Heavy Chef News, Concocted by Stephanie de Villiers, 2 comments
Published on 13 June 2011

Consumers around the globe are increasingly hungry for access to information and communication, especially in third world countries with rapidly emerging economies. Innovation in (mobile) technology is creating massive shifts, supporting the emergence of these markets.

According to an article by Andrew Meldrum for the guardian.co.uk, Africa is currently the world’s fastest growing mobile phone market. Over the past five years the number of mobile phone subscribers on the continent has increased at an annual rate of 65% – twice the global average.

mobile africa

“For you it was incremental—here it’s revolutionary,” says Isaac Nsereko of MTN, Africa’s biggest operator. Before mobile phones, vast areas in Africa were communication voids. And rather than just providing convenient, portable improvements to existing fixed-line phones, as in the developed world, mobile technology is providing access to a whole different way of life in these areas.

For the very first time many are receiving access to communication and information. And in places with bad roads, unreliable postal services and unreliable landlines, mobile phones can substitute for travel, allow quicker and easier access to information and provide simple access to computing.

According to an article in The Economist, a recent study observed that by, “adding an extra ten mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts growth in GDP per person by 0.8 percentage points”.

Never having had access to a fixed line, Mr Gakungi, a 77-year-old herbalist living in a small village just north of Nairobi, made the leap from letter-writing to wireless communications. It took a battered old mobile phone to set his business free.

“I can be anywhere, any time and people can still find me to order my products. This phone has become my office,” he adds, smiling as he holding up a Nokia registering a full bar of signal (in his house which has no electricity or running water).

He considers the 2,000 shillings (R160) of airtime per month money well spent. “You have to spend to earn,” he says. Mr Gakungi and others like him are proof of the life-changing, empowering effects that is creating a wireless revolution in Africa, making it the world’s fastest-growing mobile phone market.

Another example is says Mary Wokhwale, a a great-grandmother from Bukaweka, a small village in eastern Uganda.

“My mobile phone has been my livelihood,” she affirms. In 2003, thanks to a microfinance loan, she was able to buy a basic mobile phone handset and a roof-mounted antenna. She went into business as a “village phone” operator, selling phone calls to members of her community, making a small profit on each call. This allowed her to pay back her loan and buy another phone.

mobile africa 1Income from this small business subsequently enabled her to set up more businesses and generate further income. She has opened a village bar, a music and video shop that employs people and has helped members of her family pay their children’s school fees. Although the mobile phone business has dropped off somewhat, as many people in her village can now afford their own phones as prices have come down, Ms Wokhwale’s life has been transformed.

She prospered because she filled her community’s ravenous need and desire for communication and connectivity.

We see how local entrepreneurs’ innovative use of mobile technology promotes new business opportunities and how these technologies can raise the standard of living for all people when applied intelligently and efficiently.

In the First World we have become blasé about the transformative power of technology. We, for example, take for granted the fact that Google automatically guesses what we want next; or that Facebook knows who our friends are before we tell them. We’ve come to expect this kind of intuitive intelligence from technology. But when we focus on the people whose realities are being dramatically shifted, their lives changed forever, it is evident that we can still say that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

Read more posts by Stephanie de Villiers

Stephanie de Villiers

Stephanie de Villiers is a creative strategist and designer at World Wide Creative. With a diverse background in design, animation and brand communications strategy (and aspiring yogini), Stephanie's approach to new media is holistic. She strives to counteract the superficiality of the online space and harsh edges of the environment to create an experience that is more engaging and relevant, empathetic, softer, more sensual and contemplative. She insists that a brand's narrative is it's most valuable and enduring asset, when strategically sound.

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  1. Amanda says

    It’s hard to imagine why it is still so hard to convince some people of the power of mobile for their business. One reads the anecdotes here of how a most basic need for connection has been satisfied and realities were literally changed. Gives me goosebumps.

  2. Sam says

    mobiles are indeed transforming the African landscape. Often, the limitations inherent in working in Africa provide fertile ground for creativity that might not otherwise emerge – see ushahidi and swiftriver for examples. Mobile payments are also revolutionary in the sense that they give many previously unbanked people access to cheaper money transfers, easier purchases and savings mechanisms. There’s a lot the commercial world can learn from the ingenuity pursued by NGOs working in this sector such as cell-life, praekelt, shuttleworth and others.