Friday, October 23, 2009

The African mobile phone revolution continues

A few millennia ago I read quite a bit about "appropriate technology" applications for what was then known as "the third world" or "less developed nations".

In those days the idea was to find or invent product designs that returned value, but that weren't dependent on a lot of supporting infrastructure. Sometimes this might be a type of plow, or a type of solar oven. In the past decade or so there was a wind-up radio, More recently, there was the well intended originally MIT based OLPC laptop project

I think some of these ideas worked out, but others, like the OLPC, have been at best indirectly influential. Today's world is, despite our recent economic maelstrom, far more prosperous than the world of my childhood. These days "appropriate technology" may emerge to meet the needs of rural China or from African manufacturing, but it can also emerge in somewhat surprising ways (emphases mine) ...
Africa calling: mobile phone usage sees record rise after huge investment The Guardian

Africans are buying mobile phones at a world record rate, with take-up soaring by 550% in five years, research shows.

"The mobile phone revolution continues," says a UN report charting the phenomenon that has transformed commerce, healthcare and social lives across the planet. Mobile subscriptions in Africa rose from 54m to almost 350m between 2003 and 2008, the quickest growth in the world. The global total reached 4bn at the end of last year and, although growth was down on the previous year, it remained close to 20%.

On average there are now 60 mobile subscriptions for every 100 people in the world. In developing countries, the figure stands at 48 – more than eight times the level of penetration in 2000.

In Africa, average penetration stands at more than a third of the population, and in north Africa it is almost two-thirds. Gabon, the Seychelles and South Africa now boast almost 100% penetration...

Uganda, the first African country to have more mobiles than fixed telephones, is cited as an example of cultural and economic transformation. Penetration has risen from 0.2% in 1995 to 23% in 2008, with operators making huge investments in infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. Given their low incomes, only about a quarter of Ugandans have a mobile subscription, but street vendors offer mobile access on a per-call basis. They also invite those without access to electricity to charge their phones using car batteries.

Popular mobile services include money transfers, allowing people without bank accounts to send money by text message. Many farmers use mobiles to trade and check market prices.

... The share of the population covered by a mobile signal stood at 76% in developing countries in 2006, including 61% in rural areas. In sub-Saharan Africa, closer to half the population was covered, including 42% in rural areas...
This isn't new, the Economist and others have been covering mobile phone use in Africa for since the 1990s. It's a noteworthy and encouraging sign. It's "appropriate technology" that emerged somewhat unexpectedly, but has since received extensive support from governments and aid agencies, including Kenya's investment in new fiber optic connections.

Today these are fairly minimal phones, but Google has done some pretty ingenious things to provide voice and texting interfaces to Google services. In 3-4 years, today's simple phone users may have Android phones comparable to the iPhone of 2008.

We're gradually moving towards the Teledesic/One Laptop per Child vision, but along a less expected path.

Great news for humanity.

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