What if you have a mobile phone but you can’t read?

What will happen if mobile phone use carries on expanding at its current rate in Africa, but literacy rates don’t improve?  This graph, using data from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, gives us the answer:

If (and it’s a quite colossal if), the projections in this graph are correct, then by the end of next year there will be more mobile phone subscriptions in Africa than people who are literate. That’s when illiteracy, and not lack of access to technology, might be the thing that stops people communicating.

You need a minimum of literacy to be able to use a mobile. And if mobile phones become the main way that people access the internet, which may well happen as people leapfrog straight to smartphones, then illiteracy and not lack of technology may become the barrier to internet access too.

Mobile phones can help with literacy, of course, and there are already many pilot programmes testing out how this could work in different contexts. But at the moment the trend seems pretty overwhelming.

This graph shows another source of widening inequalities open up in front of our eyes. People who cannot read will be excluded from the information and opportunties offered by mobile phones and, soon, the internet, as well as those offered by paper and ink.

Of course there are many reasons why it probably won’t happen exactly as predicted by this graph. The people who are hardest to reach with literacy programmes will be the ones least likely to get access to mobile technology too. And the spread of mobile phones may slow down. And data from Africa, particularly when added up across the whole continent, is notoriously unreliable (there are just two data points for adult literacy, for example, in 2000 and 2008, so that line at least may well be a bit off).

But it does show a problem. This graph shows that while we’re probably right to get excited by the possiblities offered by new technology, those same technologies might make the old problems more rather than less important.

(with thanks to Alex Evans, it was a conversation with him back in September which got me wondering about this)