SXSW: How Mobile Devices Are Changing Africa

Without access to fixed-line telephones or PCs, mobile devices are the most important pieces of hardware many Africans own.

AUSTIN, TX—Mobile phones are kicking off a revolution in Africa, with everyone from farmers to villagers relying on apps to make electronic payments, check on expiration dates for medicine, and predict future storms or the best prices for produce. In a SXSW session titled “The $100bn Mobile Bullet Train Called Africa” (which would also be a pretty good name for one of the indie films playing at this massive convention), Tech4Africa founder Gareth Knight explained the contours of this revolution.

Joining Knight onstage was editor Toby Shapshak, who runs the South African edition of Stuff magazine.

According to Shapshak, more kids in Africa have access to the Internet than consistent electricity. Nobody owns a PC or can access a fixed-line telephone, so mobile phones are a conduit for everything from email to news to making payments via SMS. Many people on the continent also own phones equipped with flashlights and radios—“Radios are the killer app in Africa,” Shapshak said—and the percentage of the population equipped with mobile devices is primed to explode over the next few years.

Knight then explained how mobile devices are disrupting traditional markets, citing the case of an ex-pat from Ghana who, after raising money “from friends, family and fools,” started rice farms in his home country. “He communicates with 2,000 farmers in the West of Ghana using SMS, he sends out text messages to all his farmers,” he said. “He’s crowd-sourced rice production, and he’s selling that to the rest of the world.” That collective is now the second-biggest rice exporter in the country, largely thanks to the ability to leverage mobile technology.

Many of the mobile devices used in Africa aren’t cutting-edge, and SMS-based platforms are a necessity when it comes to sharing information. “SMS is so fantastic because it gets to every device everywhere,” Shapshak said. “SMS has a 100 percent read rate; you read every SMS you get.”

“Except for those from your ex-girlfriend,” Knight added. “Or ex-boyfriend.”

Here’s how a typical SMS platform might work: someone purchasing a box of malaria medicine could send the barcode information to a text number, which would send back an SMS message identifying the drug as real or counterfeit. Famers and other food-producers can receive SMS messages about the best ways to handle pests, for example, or take care of their cows.

According to Knight and Shapshak, technological innovation on the continent isn’t about creating the next “Angry Birds,” but apps and platforms that make life easier. Nokia still has a significant presence in Africa, thanks to its cheap mobile phones; older BlackBerry devices are also popular, especially the Curve, which in many countries can be obtained for the equivalent of $8 a month and unlimited data.

Smartphones and broadband don’t have nearly the same ubiquity as in North America or Europe. Africans often carry more than one SIM phone, a number that’s also experiencing rapid growth—Knight said the mobile-device market still has some way to go before it’s saturated. Many of those phones are prepaid rather than tethered to a contract, another significant difference from how people in North America own their devices. Electricity remains a huge concern, in addition to seamless access to mobile banking.

Why should anyone on other continents care about Africans’ mobile device use? “Africa is the fastest-growing economy in the world,” Shapshak said, quoting statistics from The Economist. The middle class is growing by a significant percentage every year. If Africa becomes more of a player in the global economy over the next few years, mobile may have played an important factor in that growth.


Image: meunierd/