Activate 2011: Mobiles Look Set to Play a Big Role in Africa’s Development

Friday, June 24, 2011

The mobile phone will have a dramatic impact on development in Africa over the next five years, declared Rakesh Rajani of Twaweza at the Activate conference this week on technology and social change in London. The technology industry has a track record of hype, but Rajani’s comments sound plausible given the huge number of pilot projects for mobiles in Africa in all areas of development. A race is on to find what mobiles can do in areas as disparate as public health, governance and education.

The effort pouring into mobile phones in Africa is largely driven by the realisation that it is likely to be the only connection to the internet for the vast majority of Africans for many years to come, argued Herman Heunis, the founder and chief executive of South Africa based MXit.

MXit is a instant messaging platform with 39 million registered users, mostly in Africa, for gaming, social involvement, m-commerce and advertising. Much of this is monetised, generating the revenue for a wide range of additional free services for social purposes; the plan is to put all the school curricula on the platform, which can be accessed free of charge. Textbooks will be uploaded to mobiles, one chapter at a time; MXit has already put a novel on its platform, broken down into chapters, and it was accessed by 76,000 subscribers.

MXit also runs a Childline, with 70,000 subscribers talking to trained counsellors. More than 120,000 users are registered for a drug, debt, alcohol and depression counselling. Another free service is maths teaching, with 17,000 students and 100 tutors. Heunis also explained how MXit is helping mobile entrepreneurs with technical support and revenue-sharing agreeements. The next project in development is the mobile as a wallet so that deposits and payments can be made by phone at the point of sale. The internet, portals, blogging, and searches can all be accessed via mobile phone, said Heunis. Only if the price of tablets dropped dramatically would this dependence on mobile phones in Africa begin to shift.

These mobile services could really transform remote rural areas of Africa with little access to banking and limited educational services. It has been calculated that at the current rate of progress, it will be 17 years before every child in Tanzania has a textbook in the core subjects, Rajani said.

Another use for mobile phones is in public health. Dr Joel Selanikio pointed out that acrosss much of Africa there simply isn’t the data needed on public health to form effective policy. Much data collection has been laborious and expensive, and required people to go door to door with pen and paper. The mobile phone can change all that with basic SMS collection. Midwives in a project in Ghana are texting two figures every week: one for the number of births and one for the number of deaths of children under five. For the first time the Ghanian health service is getting almost real-time information rather than waiting for census results every 10 years.

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