Cellphones in Africa

August 25, 2005

Today's New York Times carries a front-page article about the growth of the cell phone industry in Africa.

The article is as well-written a summary of the communications crisis in Africa as I have ever read — though it is an undeniably, perhaps inexplicably, upbeat assessment of the curent growth trend in cell phone use.

The article begins by describing the difficulties faced by a rural farmer in Johnanesburg:

On this dry mountaintop, 36-year-old Bekowe Skhakhane does even the simplest tasks the hard way.

Fetching water from the river takes four hours a day. To cook, she gathers sticks and musters a fire. Light comes from candles.

But when Ms. Skhakhane wants to talk to her husband, who works in a steel factory 250 miles away in Johannesburg, she does what many in more developed regions do: she takes out her mobile phone.

africa Author Shanon LaFranierie did a great job of putting this together, I think, but again the upbeat assessment tends to make the issue more of a spectacle than an outrage. Which it is. Take, for example, the fact that the woman described in the lead actually has the money for only five minutes of calls per month — a pretty slim communication system indeed.

There is also the fact that while Africa now has the highest percentage of cell phone users relative to land lines, that doesn't mean much when only one in 30 people has a land line. And the fact that less than 60% of Africa can get any cellphone signal at all is rather sobering.

And yet, there is an undeniable fact of real growth — economic, social, educational — that is occuring because of the powerful effect that even a slight improvement in communication can bring. At least when the context is dire poverty, the impact of just a few cellphones can be dramatically disproportinate.

Andy Carvin, a guru of the Digital Divide Network also has some interesting thoughts about this article on his blog.

Andy writes that:

No doubt, mobile phones will be near the top of the list [of development technologies] — but that list also includes $100 laptops, wind-up electricity generators, low-cost community radio transmitters, and the timeless ham radio. So let's not make policy decisions under the assumption that mobile phones are the only tool necessary for bridging the digital divide.

The entire article is online for a little while in this section of the paper: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/25/international/africa