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Africa: the impact of mobile phones


March 2005

SARPN acknowledges the Vodafone website as the source of this report.
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About 18 months ago we became interested in studies on the economic and social impacts of mobile telecommunications. However, a thorough review of the existing literature revealed surprisingly little systematic evidence. There were many anecdotes, some interesting sociological research, but few successful studies looking at the economic impacts on individuals, businesses and overall economic activity.

This project has its roots in our dissatisfaction with that situation. It seemed extraordinary that a technology that has clearly taken the world by storm had attracted so little rigorous research. It was equally clear that there was widespread interest in the subject. As we discussed our programme and ideas with people both inside and outside the industry, the appetite for this work became obvious.

We wanted the work to be able to survive the scrutiny of a potentially skeptical audience. Therefore, with advice from the Vodafone Advisory Panel (a group of academics, officials and NGO representatives with interests in this field) we developed a programme of research.

The field was wide open so we could have chosen to focus anywhere but we started with the impact of mobile in the developing world. The reason was simple. We were inspired by a conversation with Alan Knott-Craig, the CEO of our affiliate company in South Africa, in which he talked about the impact mobile was having in Africa. The variety of the examples he mentioned were simply extraordinary.

Vodafone operates around the globe and has a particular interest in developing markets in Africa, not least because of the success of our investment in Vodacom, initially operating in South Africa and now also in Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Mozambique and Tanzania. Vodafone also operates in Egypt and Kenya.

At the time we began this work, the fact that Africa was to play such a leading part in the G8 agenda for 2005 and the work of the Africa Commission was unknown. We have been fortunate that the issues we have covered resonate with these important international initiatives. We hope that these studies will assist in highlighting the part that mobile telecommunications can play in the developing world.

We have learned a great deal. Most important is the fact that the ways in which mobiles are used, valued and owned in the developing world are very different from the developed countries. More attention should be paid to the characteristics of how people actually do use phones in the developing world in policy debates on increasing access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT). It is wrong to simply extrapolate our developed world models of needs and usage patterns to poorer nations. Understanding the context is vital. In the UK, the ratio of the number of outgoing voice calls made to the number of SMS messages sent is 0.6:1; in South Africa as a whole, the ratio is 3:1 for pre-pay phones; yet in the rural communities we surveyed, the average ratio was a remarkable 13:1. In Ndebe, a rural community in South Africa, the ratio was 17:1, but when one considers this in the context of a community in which access to education is not universal, the data are more understandable. The combination of illiteracy and indigenous languages clearly has dramatic effects on the use of SMS messaging; the implications of this extend to other types of data usage (e.g. the internet). Our view is that the policy debates on ICT policy are not sufficiently informed by this type of evidence.

The value of communications in the developing world is also different. Imagine you are painter living in a township near Johannesburg and you are some way from your potential clients. You are looking for work but the postal service is poor and there is no fixed-line phone. How does a potential employer contact you? A mobile provides you with a point of contact; it actually enables you to participate in the economic system (see photograph below). Similarly, if you live in a rural community and you need to go to the nearest town to shop for some particular goods, a mobile phone call could save you a relatively expensive return bus fare and the lengthy journey time, if the goods were out of stock. When other forms of communication are poor, whether roads or fixed-line telephones, the value of quality mobile communications is much greater.

We have also learned that people in Africa use mobile phones very differently. Most striking is the accessibility of mobile. While penetration rates are by the standards of the developed countries low, the way in which mobiles are informally shared between people, the formation of private resellers of mobile services and the provision of mobile phones for public use, all increase accessibility, even in rural communities. The impact of mobile extends well beyond what might be suggested by the number of subscriptions alone.

The informal arrangements that extend the reach of telecommunications are very powerful. In the data for the rural communities in South Africa, we noticed that the ratio of inbound texts to outbound texts was about 8:1. This imbalance is attributed to the entrepreneurial activity of some of the more literate individuals with cell phones who, for a marginal fee, receive and relay text messages to those without cell phones or those who cannot read or write. This is apparently a very common practice in most of the rural areas.

The developed world model of personal ownership of a phone is not relevant, or indeed appropriate, to the developing world. With an understanding of this context, one can more easily appreciate why the usage of the technology is growing so quickly and in such distinctive ways in Africa. In the UK, there are now more mobile subscriptions than fixed lines; that cross-over occurred in 2000 (about 15 years after the first mobile call was made); in Tanzania, that cross-over point was also reached in 2000 (but just 5 years after the first mobile was sold). The relative impact of mobile on communications has been much more dramatic in Africa and the growth is now accelerating at a tremendous rate. The number of subscribers in Nigeria, the world’s fastest-growing market according to the International Telecommunications Union, increased by 143 per cent in the 12 months to June 2003. In Africa, increasingly telecommunications means mobile telecommunications. Fixed-mobile substitution is not a relevant concept, because the whole developmental stage of widespread fixed line service has been leap-frogged by mobile in many nations.

The mobile telecommunications story in Africa and the developing world is a remarkable one. There have been large infrastructure investments, which have enabled millions of people to communicate better. While there is a lot of focus on low absolute rates of mobile penetration, this underestimates the real impact that mobile is having through the innovative and entrepreneurial ways in which the technology has been extended beyond the model of individual ownership. Thousands of jobs have been created and some very successful indigenous companies have emerged. All of these results were achieved through enterprise rather than aid. A clear success story in commercial terms but one that also had a profound impact on the development of the economy and society.

We have been greatly assisted in this program by the work of Diane Coyle, who has written the introductory piece and edited this pamphlet. It would not have been possible without her efforts and enthusiasm. We would also like to express our thanks to the various contributors for their papers and the stimulating discussion that has accompanied the work. We all have a lot to learn about mobile communications in Africa and the developing world. This is our initial contribution to that process, which we hope will stimulate you to explore these issues further.

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