Gone are the days when mobile phones were only the preserve of the wealthy and no foreign mobile operators from the richer economies were willing to invest in Africa, today, the mobile phone business is becoming one of the biggest growth sectors of mass consumption on the continent.
Between 2003 and 2008, total consumers grew from 54 million to 350 million mobile subscriptions, the fastest in the world and more than twice the global average. This has meant that countries are beginning to move away from the more costly fixed line phones, to the cheaper mobile phones, with countries like South Africa and Uganda having more mobile phones than fixed land lines, the latter being the first on the continent to do so.
African consumers and entrepreneurs have realised that mobile phones are not just for transmitting voice calls, a key growth in business has come from mobile banking. In many countries, opening and maintaining a bank account is bureaucratic and expensive, however with services like M-Pesa in Kenya, it has enabled ordinary mobile users to have mobile wallets and have payments done quickly and cheaper than conventional banking institutions. Many in rural areas have now been empowered to buy and sell services that were once only possible in the urban domains, thus giving them increased livelihood strategies. M-Pesa on average have an aggregate movement of US$8 million per day, far greater than would be possible if consumers used normal bank accounts and procedures, thus increasing the likelihood of consumption.
Aside from mobile banking, there is the important aspect of mobile internet. The Seacom broadband cable that landed on the east coast of Africa this year, which is expected to lower the cost of internet services and increase speeds and access, mobile internet is a service that stands a great chance of succeeding. With more mobile users, and less investment required such as acquiring a fixed land line, a computer, an internet provider, all consumers will need is a mobile phone with internet access and a mobile internet package which they will use.
Mobile internet has also been used to inform farmers of market prices, thus eliminating information asymmetries, which are a key reason for farmers not receiving the prices they deserve. Reducing these asymmetries will make the market more efficient, and give farmers and consumers greater choice on products and price. It has also allowed farmers to receive information on how to plant their crops so that they get the highest yield possible.
As with most growth industries on the continent, the mobile phone business will move from strength to strength, those without employment capabilities can build their livelihoods around mobile phones, be it selling air time on the streets, or charging mobile phone batteries in towns, fixing mobile phones, or as is being seen in east Africa, writing programmes for phones which will increase incomes.
Todays video shows exactly how mobile phones are changing lives, a man without legs in Cameroon, who without mobile phones, has been able to have an income that he would have had otherwise, very inspirational.