Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Mobile Technology, Internet Connectivity, and Development in Africa

by Isobel Coleman
September 21, 2012

A delegate checks a blackberry handset at an exhibition stand during the West & Central Africa Com conference in Nigeria's capital Abuja, June 18, 2009 (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters). A delegate checks a Blackberry handset at an exhibition stand during the West & Central Africa Com conference in Nigeria's capital Abuja on June 18, 2009 (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters).


Earlier this week, I participated in Time magazine’s “The Future of Mobility” panel, which focused on the implications of mobile technology for the developing world. As I’ve previously noted, certain advances in mobile technology in places like Kenya could leapfrog those in the United States. Perhaps the best example of this is mobile money, which is taking off in Africa but still struggling to get traction in the U.S. As Kiva CEO and co-founder Matt Flannery remarked during the panel, “Mobile money in Africa is a solution to a problem, whereas in the United States, mobile payments are a solution looking for a problem.” Satisfied with widely accepted credit cards and easily accessible online checking accounts, people in advanced economies have less need to adopt mobile phone-based banking; in Kenya, where access to traditional banking is far more limited, some 40 percent of the adult population now uses mobile money.

Of course, mobile technology is also transforming the way many things are done in the U.S. One featured speaker at the Time event, Travis Kalanick—the CEO and co-founder of the mobile application-based car service start up Uber—discussed how changes in mobile hardware and software, such as longer battery life and updated operating systems, made his thriving business possible. Another panelist, TechNet CEO Rey Ramsey, discussed the economic benefits of mobile applications in light of a study his organization conducted, which found “there are now roughly 466,000 jobs in the ‘App Economy’ in the United States, up from zero in 2007.” Ramsey noted how the relatively low barriers to entry in mobile app development meant that “apps” jobs are found across the U.S., not just in the cities associated with innovation.

Many people in Africa and other places in the developing world do not yet use internet-enabled phones, the technology that has made much of the mobile apps industry in the U.S. possible. Even in highly connected Kenya, only about ten out of every 100 people used the internet in 2009, and only about five out of every one hundred people had a mobile internet subscription. Nevertheless, Africa is already seeing the benefits of the mobile technology industry, both as a driver of economic growth and innovation. The relatively low barriers to entry for app development is a global phenomenon, and helps explain the rapidly growing tech services economy in Kenya, which is known for its innovations in mobile applications. Kenya’s exports of technology-related services has grown more than 20-fold in the past decade.

However, even a center of mobile innovation like Kenya has not even begun to meet its potential. Some tech observers are very bullish on the future of smartphones in Africa for reasons ranging from declining smart phone prices to trends in African mobile phone adoption and the African economy. “There are already 84m internet-enabled mobiles in Africa. It is predicted that 69 percent of mobiles in Africa will have internet access by 2014,” reported The Economist Intelligent Life in 2011.

What would greater incidence of internet-enabled phones mean for developing countries? Beyond potentially spurring a more robust “app economy,” it could also have important implications for development projects. Increased internet connectivity could make mobile phones into better learning platforms for students; it could give doctors in rural areas more robust information with which to make diagnoses, give treatment, and track patients. Internet-enabled phones are no silver bullet solution to development challenges, and extending access to groups sometimes left out of the mobile revolution (the poorest citizens, and women more generally) will be a formidable task. As of 2010, an estimated 36 percent of Africans in the “25 countries [that] contain 91 percent of the continent’s mobile connections” still aren’t connected by mobile phone—of any kind. Still, expect more transformational innovation ahead.

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