Industries in Depth

How are mobile phones changing Africa?

Image: A Somali man browses the internet on his mobile phone. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Roxanne Bauer
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Globally, all regions of the world are gaining access to the internet and mobile phones, with mobile phones driving a great deal of the gains. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 60% of individuals now have access to a mobile phone. Convergence around mobile phones is occurring in two simultaneous and reinforcing ways: mobile phones are superseding or preceding other communication methods as the technology of choice for individuals looking for greater interconnectedness, and they are also incorporating (rather than replacing) other mediums in the provision of content.

Mobile phones are cheap, easy to use, provide many benefits, and do not require much literacy or numeracy for basic use. They can be shared, prepaid, billed in prices per second, depending on the needs and abilities of the owner(s). In Cameroon, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, more than four in five mobile phone owners have simple phones, not capable of browsing the internet.

Mobile phones are also capable of providing a diversity of interactive activities. Mobile apps, text messaging, calling, and internet browsing are all possible from these small devices. In African countries, social networking, sending and receiving e-mails, instant messaging, and checking facts and definitions are the most common uses of the internet. The consumption of games, online newspapers, books, radio, and video also signals that rather than replacing these traditional mediums, the internet incorporates their digital versions.

Image: World Bank

The World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report, “Digital Dividends” notes that "For many people, today’s increase in access to digital technologies brings more choice and greater convenience. Through inclusion, efficiency, and innovation, access provides opportunities that were previously out of reach to the poor and disadvantaged."

Image: World Bank

It also cautions that "Despite the rapid spread of digital technologies, more than 800 million people lack mobile access worldwide (63 percent of them in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution), and 4.3 billion lack internet access (49 percent in the bottom 40). For every person connected to the internet in developing countries, almost three are not, and in some countries, 20 are not. Big gaps remain by income, age, location, and gender (figure 2.4, below). In African countries, the bottom 40 percent is only one-third as likely to have access to the internet as the upper 60 percent; 18 percent of men report using the internet versus 12 percent of women, and 20 percent of youth versus 8 percent of those more than 45 years old."

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Related topics:
Industries in DepthGeographies in DepthFourth Industrial Revolution
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