Is the ‘mobile phone revolution’ in Africa really for everybody?

photo credit: Kiwanja.net

On Monday I gave a talk at ‘Africa Gathering’ - a great event full of serious mobile communications geeks (in a good way).  I’m as much of a technological optimist as the next starry-eyed iphone user (an ODI paper suggests, for example, that every extra 10% of mobile phone penetration increases economic growth by just under 1%), but I thought that there’d be enough of that around so I decided to present a few of the ‘yes, but’ arguments about mobiles in Africa.  Mainly these are about who gets access to the technology, and whether there’s a new ‘digital divide’ opening up in front of our eyes (screens?).   In true policy wonk style, I had three points:

1. The geographical divide.  This website gives live maps of mobile phone coverage of most African countries, and it’s a similar pattern in most (I tried to download some to paste in here but I couldn’t – oh the irony).  The areas where most people live are covered, but large swathes of every country, so a signficant number of the most excluded, remote communities, still don’t have a signal.  Expanding coverage is going to be expensive, and the most remote areas are going to be the most expensive. But it’s got to happen if we’re interested in equitable access to the huge benefits that mobile communications can bring.  Governments have a role of course, in providing incentives for the private sector to make those investments. 

2. The literacy divide.  I’ve blogged here before about the fact that slowly growing rates of literacy and rapidly growing rates of mobile internet access might mean that inability to read, rather than lack of access to the technology,will soon become the key barrier to accessing the internet.  There’s lots of great examples of how mobile communications can be used to promote literacy, but the point still stands.  And again, it’s largely up to governments to make sure that literacy expands fast enough to keep up.

3. The money divide.  Using a mobile phone costs money.  In parts of Kenya making a money transaction using the MPESA mobile banking service costs the same as a bag of maize.  Costs have to come down to bring this technology within reach.  ODI has done some research (pdf) on how competition can bring costs down – again, governments have a role in promoting competition and if necessary regulating prices directly, if digital equity is a goal that they are serious about. 

My conclusion: the mobile revolution might have been driven by the private sector, but governments have to get involved and start seeing mobile communications as a service like any other, with the same issues of equity, coverage and affordability, to prevent new inequalities from emerging. Or in other words: the usual public policy problem updated for the mobile age.