Texting a way out of poverty

Jul 4th, 2012 | By | Category: International

A personal labour of love is to produce a twenty page booklet for the Rwandan diocese of Shyogwe each year. 250 copies were printed two weeks ago and 200 of those will be taken to the diocesan office in Gitarama this week. The booklet provides details of parishes, topics for prayer, a table of readings for each Sunday of the year, and a diocesan directory. Typing up clergy details in the directory, there was the realisation that every one of the forty-eight numbers was a mobile number; even the diocesan office was reached through a mobile number.

Mobile phones are everywhere in Rwanda, even the poorest of farmers will break off from conversation at the behest of their ringtones. A technological piece of leapfrogging has taken place; they have gone from pre-modern communication to contemporary forms without the century long development of the telephone that took place in Europe and America. In part, the development of a conventional telephone network was not feasible with few potential subscribers in poor farming communities; in part, there was the recurrent problem of copper wire being cut from the poles in order that it might be sold as scrap metal. The mobile phone network demands much less infrastructure and it allows people to connect in a less structured and less formal way.

The African mobile phenomenon was noted by Richard Dowden in 2008 in Africa: Altered Images, Ordinary Miracles

The idea that phone companies would invest in network infrastructure for mobiles in poor Africa seemed far-fetched, the notion that ordinary Africa would buy them and use them even more so. . . .Everyone knew Africans did not use telephones. When the South African MTN Group investigated Nigeria as a pos­sible market for mobile phones in the late 1990s, their experts estimated that the maximum number of potential subscribers would be 15 million. They opened in Nigeria in 2001. By 2007 there were nearly 30 million subscribers and the number of potential customers in Africa is estimated to reach 52 million by 2011.

That wild underestimation of Nigeria’s mobile phone market was repeated throughout Africa. It showed two profound misunder-standings of the continent: first, Africa’s ability to pay, and second its desire to communicate. Africa was a lot richer than the economists of the World Bank and the IMF had thought. Africa’s mobile market has been the fastest growing in the world. Between 1999 and 2004, the number of mobile subscribers in Africa jumped from 7.5 million to 76.8 million, an average annual increase of 58 per cent. It was because there were so few working land lines that mobiles were in such demand. Nearly three-quarters of all calls in Africa are now made through mobiles.

Connectivity, while not yet universal, reaches the remotest places. Suddenly you can call London from a village more than fifty miles from a town in northern Nigeria. It is not, as expected, just the middle-class professionals who use mobiles. Villages and shanty towns bleep and jingle as much as high-tec urban offices. Everyone wants a mobile phone, just as much as they once wanted shoes. The pay-as-you-go cards solve the problems of billing – the postal service does not work either in much of Africa. Decades of airtime are sold through plastic scratch cards available from private traders in smartly painted booths and shops in every village. The phone companies get their money back instantly and have all made fortunes.

Walk through a market in a Nigerian village and you will hear the market women checking the price of potatoes in the nearest town; visit nomads in Somalia and you will find them, herding-stick in one hand mobile in the other, learning the best moment to come to market to sell their animals. Fishermen off the Tanzanian coast check which beach or port to bring their catch to. And everywhere in Africa no taxi driver will let you get out before he has given you his mobile number. No-one predicted any of this.

The figure of 76.8 million mobile phones in Africa in 2004 has now jumped to 695 million, yet while texting is the stuff of adolescent social life in Europe and North America, in Africa it is part of a business revolution. The BBC report on ‘a mobile technology that allows users to search for and purchase products via text message’.

Technology developer Johan Nel says, ‘This type of technology we are working to develop is one that we hope will solve African problems while putting Africa on the map for innovative solutions.’

Working with the texting system that is treated casually in Europe (to the extent that some phone packages offer unlimited texts), the developers offer the prospect that the phone numbers in the Shyogwe booklet might become more than contact details, but avenues to change and development.

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