Why Africa?

Today’s mobile phones are designed to meet Western needs. Subscribers in developing countries, however, now represent the majority of 2.4 billion mobile phone users worldwide. Africa, with Kenya at its forefront, is currently the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world. Over the past five years the continent's mobile phone use has increased at an annual rate of 65 percent - twice the global average. In June of 1999, Kenya had 15,000 mobile phone subscribers. By the end of 2004 the country had 3.4 million subscribers, and in the last 18 months this number has grown to over 5.6 million, despite the fact that only 200,000 Kenyan households have electricity.

According to the government's 2005 Economic Survey, Kenya’s small business sector, which employs the majority of workers in the nation, created approximately 437,900 new jobs last year. The boom of mobile phones in Kenya has been credited for much of this growth. Indeed, it has been shown that adding an additional ten mobile phones per 100 people boosts a typical developing country’s GDP growth by 0.6 percent.

A large part of this boost comes from the innovative use of mobile phone technology by local entrepreneurs. In contrast to their use in the developed world, mobile phones in Africa are used for a wide variety of tasks, from sending money to family members to buying a fish from the market. Kenyan business men, farmers, and laborers are finding new uses for a tool thought of as simply a voice communication device in the West, and are coming up with original methods for solving their own problems. For example, contract laborers can now provide their phone numbers to potential employers and move on, instead of having to wait for hours at a workplace in case a job arises. Access to market information through mobile phones also provides rural communities with invaluable information about centers of business; many African fishermen check the local fish market prices on their phones to determine where to bring the day’s catch. The Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange (Kace), now provides crop growers with up-to-date commodity information via text message (sms). This allows farmers to access daily fruit and vegetable prices from a dozen markets, and many have quadrupled their earnings because they have access to information about potential buyers and prices before making the often arduous journey into urban centers to sell their produce. The community payphone, another innovation unique to the developing world, has helped bring mobile phone usage to the poorest areas of Africa. These payphones are owned and operated by entrepreneurs who buy airtime from the network and subsequently sell it to local people who don’t own phones themselves. According to the CCK, over 5,000 of these community phones had been established by the end of 2004. A recent survey reported that 97% of Tanzanians now have access to a mobile phone thanks to the community payphone model, despite the lack of electrical infrastructure for much of the country. The payphones are easy to operate in isolated areas far from the nearest traditional telephone landline, and can be used even where there is no electricity, as they can be powered by either solar or car batteries. Africa’s adaptation of mobile phone technology shows the value of inexpensive, mobile computing for a people representative of the 1.4 billion mobile phone users living in the developing world today.

2006 Statistics

  • Worldwide, there are more than 2.4 billion cellphone users, with more than 1,000 new customers added every minute.
  • 59 percent of these 2.4 billion people live in developing countries, making cellphones the first telecommunications technology in history to have more users there than in the developed world.
  • Mobile phone shipments grew 19 percent to 810 million units in 2005 and are expected to rise by 15 percent to 930 million units in 2006
  • Cellphone usage in Africa is growing almost twice as fast as any other region and jumped from 63 million users two years ago to 152 million today.

More on African mobile phone usage in the press...

Original Nokia Proposal (June 2005)