(a paper I wrote for Future of New Media class)
A couple of weeks ago I came across the story of the Masais, a tribe that lives in parts of Tanzania and Kenya who still experience a nomadic lifestyle. They move from place to place with their animals and settle in different spaces just like our ancestors used to do thousands of years ago. The author of the article I am referring to was trying to explore the idea of how technology can impact societies that have not been influenced yet by any type of screen. The old “dumb phones” are changing the type of person a Masai can contact and the type of information they can share, that is, it is empowering them. Transactions are faster; it has boosted their economy and even sometimes, they can access Facebook. This is just one example of how mobile phones are revolutionizing the most traditional African societies. That old Nokia 1100 we thought belonged to the past is now used throughout the African continent, exactly the way the developed world experienced 20 years ago. So, how do you think the future of mobile phones will look in 20 years from now in places like Africa?
79% of people in the developing world own a mobile phone. In Africa, the ownership of mobile phones has increased impressively in the past 15 years. For example, in 2002 only 8% of Ghanaians owned one, compared to the 83% that they have today. According to the Global Attitudes Survey from the Pew Research Center (2014), texting is the most common use of cellphones in the region; followed by taking pictures or videos - even the Masai men use their phones to photograph women and cows -. The percentage is higher in countries such as South Africa and Nigeria, where nine out of ten people own a cell phone. The study shows how the amount of adults that own a mobile phone in these countries is the same as in the United States. However, there is still an important gender gap on mobile phone ownership in most of African countries we need to consider when we intend to create initiatives through these devices.
A lot of studies have been conducted in the last years about the data obtained from mobile phones. In the developing world, and especially in the African region, the amount of data that is being obtained from the use of this device is helping identify needs, provide services and prevent crisis. One of the best examples for this lies in a study conducted by Adeline Decuyper at the Université Catholiue de Louvain in Belgium, who is using mobile phone usage patterns in Central African countries to identify food consumption patterns. Using data record from the phone carrier, she is comparing the airtime expenses of individuals with food consumption variables.
And that is one of the most powerful tools we can count on, especially when we talk about developing countries and low-income countries where sometimes the lack of citizen’s information prevents adopting development policies properly. However, when we talk about the developing world we also need to consider the cultural impact of technology and understand the context where the data is being extracted. All data obtained from the African region is not context free.
All this “mobile phone revolution” in Africa, as it has been called many times, brings up the question about how SMS became such a revolutionary tool in a world where living without a smartphone seems not to be an option. Definitely the lack of basic resources in African low-income countries is one of the most important reasons for this lateness. Nevertheless, today Africa is considered the fastest growing phone market in the world. What should draw most of our attention is the fact that African people are giving the old phones a very similar use to the apps we use on our smartphones, except that no Internet access is needed. How did they achieve this? That’s the most fascinating part of this story.
The Nokia 1100 is the most popular phone in the world. It is not only a lot more resistant, but it also uses a simple menu system, few separate parts and every town across the developing world has a local repair shop with spare parts to fix or charge them. This “dumb phones”, as they are known, have been the medium for thousand of Africans to start being part of a globalized system. In the past 10 years, a lot of SMS initiatives have been created to facilitate economic transactions, to analyze information and even to improve the medical system. All of this has been a key factor in achieving development in Africa.
One of the oldest successful initiatives is called M-Pesa. The future of money in the region is dominated by mobile phones, as countries such as Kenya have been using M-Pesa since 2007. Launched by Safaricom, users can transfer money via SMS and short codes. No apps or smartphones are necessary to create a financial system like this, who has been successfully working for the past 9 years, creating financial profiles of unbanked persons. 27% of the GDP’s country flows through this system and one of the reasons why it has been so successful is due to the amount of money many workers need to send back home to their families in rural villages. Other methods are more expensive and not affordable for most people, so using a very simple SMS based system becomes a way to financially empower a lot of people.
In Zambia, a program that ensures that infants are being tested for HIV sends the test results to health facilities using SMS to receive instant results, avoiding the traditional paperwork and the unnecessary delays. Information is sent from regional laboratories back to the point-of-car guaranteeing accuracy. Also, mobile phones are used in the benefit of programs for HIV prevention and treatment, by sending reminder calls and SMS to the patients.
If we talk about education, companies such as Nokia are working together with Non Profit Organizations like Wordreader, with whom they are publishing books through a mobile phone e-reader since 2010, allowing students to access to digital book content and breaking the barrier of the 9% of students that have said that if it wouldn’t be for initiatives like this, they wouldn’t have any access to any reading material. At the same time farmers are also using SMS services to find out the daily prices of agricultural commodities. This allows them to improve their negotiation position when taking goods to the market.
The technology behind SMS has really revolutionized the system in Africa, as well as audio-based distribution methods. SMS technology helps obtain mobile phone data through proxies. Call Detail Records (CDRs) are able to document the details of a telephone call or messaging produced by a telephone exchange. Mobile data analysis allows location tracking, social networks from calling patterns, text analysis and economic information from purchase behavior. RapidSMS is also a platform that allows large-scale data collection and analysis used for mobile services for scale, and it’s being using in different initiatives in many countries. Even though it may sound unusual for us, the technical infrastructure is fitting perfectly for their necessities.
The continuous expansion in the adoption of mobile phones in Africa keeps increasing. People living in rural areas and even some structured and conservative villages are open their societies to this device and changing their dynamics because of this. As I mentioned before, culture and tradition are two very important aspects that always needs to be considered before creating new systems for African people.
Apart from the current reality, one of the important issues we need to think is what will happen with the production of ‘dumb phones’ in the future. It is true that this phones are the most used in this continent, and that they have allowed technology to get there faster than the path of development, but how can you compete with the $10 smartphones from China that have been making their way into the market? We have to recognize that social media constitutes a big pressure behind people wanting to use smarter devices. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), by 2019 feature phones will only account for 27% of Africa’s mobile handset market due to the lowering in prices of smartphones.
Will companies start to create special phones for special audiences? It is already happening since Microsoft and Huawei introduced the Huawei 4Afrika mobile phone in 2013. This mobile phone is a full functionality Windows Phone 8 that comes pre loaded with select applications designed by Africans for Africa. Also, the company VMK Tech, that in 2006 designed a low cost laptop for Africa, is now producing tablets and mobile phones focused on the lower side of the market. With their company settled in Congo, they intend to be the next ‘Apple’ or ‘Microsoft’ in Africa.
Mobile Phones are making everything possible in developing societies that are starting to use the available technology as their enabler to solve real problems. Unlike the rest of the world, the approach for technology is coming with a different perspective. The Masais don’t use their mobile phones to search for the recipe of how to prepare a cake; they use it to improve their quality of life and their relations between themselves and others. Maybe these specific situations are the ones incentivizing companies and big brands to design mobile phones specific for this audience. And, if mobile phones can tell us more about what development policies should look like, then this data is probably a hidden treasure that needs to keep being exploded.
 Baird, T. (2016, March). “Los Masais: transformados, para bien o para mal, por los celulares”. National Geographic Magazine.
 “Cell Phones in Africa: Communication Lifeline”. (2015, April). Retrieved from: http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/04/15/cell-phones-in-africa-communication-lifeline/
 “How Mobile Phone Data Reveals Food Consumption Patterns in Central Africa”. (2014, December). Retrieved from: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/533621/how-mobile-phone-data-reveals-food-consumption-patterns-in-central-africa/
 The Economist. (2013, May). “Why does Kenya lead the world in mobile money?”. Retrieved from: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/05/economist-explains-18
 United Nations World Health Organization. (2012, March). “Early infant diagnosis of HIV infection in Zambia through mobile phone texting of blood test results” Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/90/5/11-100032/en/
 Rapid SMS. Retrieved from: https://www.rapidsms.org/
 4Afrika. Retrieved from: https://www.microsoft.com/africa/4afrika/windows_phone_8_for_africa.aspx
 Collins, K. (2013, November). “VMK Tech designs phones and tablets in Africa, for Africa, and will soon build them there too”. Retrieved from: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-11/01/verone-mankou-vmk-tech