How the Rest Can Catch Up With the West

"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or
write; they will be those who cannot learn, unlearn, and re-learn."
  -- Alan Tofler

Subscriptions to mobile telephones exceeded the number of fixed
telephones globally in 2002, according to the International
Telecommunications Union (ITU). In developing countries without
sufficient fixed telephone infrastructure, wireless growth has been
explosive, with mobile phones becoming the first and only telephones for
the majority of new subscribers. Africa was the first continent to have
more mobile lines than fixed and, with a mobile growth rate of 77.9%, is
the fastest growing in the World. In reality, Africa is a world leader
when it comes to mobile communications.

Until recently, Africa ranked least using any parameter of growth.
Inadequate supply of fixed lines often gave the West the false
impression that there was no demand for mobile communications in Africa.
Some even suggested that telephone affordability was non-existent on the

However, mobile telephony is putting Africa in positive light. 84.8% of
all mobile lines in Africa are digital, far greater than all other
Continents, except Asia (90.1%). When you consider that the same figure
for Europe is 59.4%, Americas 56.5%, Oceania 83.7%, then you will
appreciate the import of the African mobile explosion.

The primary factor responsible for the phenomenal take-up of mobile
lines in Africa is the failure of government-owned public telephone
utilities throughout the Continent to satisfy the huge demand for
communications by the vast generality of the people. Nearly all the
National Telephone Carriers have failed to deliver telephone service
cheaply and efficiently.

The take-up of GSM phones in many African countries has demonstrated,
beyond reasonable doubt, that there is significant pent-up demand for
communications services, even among relatively low income users.

Other drivers of growth are the increasing adoption of the policy of
market liberalization by African governments leading to the licensing of
aggressive private companies who are competing among each other to make
mobile services increasingly affordable. These companies are essentially
African in equity, character and operations. Without a doubt,
competition is a major driver of the mobile explosion.

With prepaid, mobile has become even more affordable as users are able
to control their telephone expenditure without undergoing credit checks
or being tied to long term contracts. The use of mobiles now cuts across
all social classes.

>From a mere 646,500 mobile lines in 1995, Africa now has in excess of 36
million mobile subscribers. No other segment of the economy is growing as
rapidly. Cumulative annual growth rate is averagely 77%, and mobile is
growing faster than most other economic sectors. Several African countries
now have double-digit mobile penetration of the population, far beyond the
finest predictions of most analysts. Countries with double-digit mobile
penetration include Seychelles (53%), South Africa (30%), Botswana (24%),
Gabon (21%), and Morocco (20%).  Other countries with extremely rapid
growth and acceptance of mobile technology with subscriptions in excess of
1 million include Nigeria, Cote DIvoire, Kenya, Ghana, and Egypt. Even
war-torn Sudan still manages to have nearly 200,000 mobile users despite
the ravaging civil war in that country. Africa is becoming a shining
example of how mobile communications is changing lives worldwide. 

There are several implications of the mobile revolution. I shall zero in
on just two.

Africa may be the first continent with pervasive mobile Internet

The only constraint to this happening now is two-fold. First is the
limitation of GSM technology. GSM support for broadband Internet
technologies, a key requirement to productive Internet access, is
evolving at the moment. There is no clear-cut, globally acceptable
single means of assessing the Internet via a mobile device on a GSM
network. Whether it is WAP, GPRS, EDGE, or ETC (!), GSM support for the
Internet is extremely weak. This is why bypass technologies such as
Wi-Fi, and Wi-Max are in strong demand.

The second reason is the poor usability of mobile phones as Internet
access devices. But this problem would be solved and the Internet will
soon merge with, and converge into, mobile devices. When that happens,
the digital revolution in Africa would be even more explosive. Think of
it again. The day you can conveniently use your regular mobile phone
(and I'm not talking of expensive esoteric models as the Communicator) to
send emails to your loved ones in the village and browse for current
prices of cement (for instance), that day your need for the services of
a place to browse would diminish! The place to browse would be right in
your hands! And that day is not too far-fetched.

The most innovative uses of mobile technology will come out of Africa

With minimal fixed line infrastructure, and virtually no backbone for
Internet traffic, African mobile operators will (and cannot afford not
to) come up with solutions and applications that are novel to the West.
These new mobile technology solutions (and derivatives) will enable
companies doing business in Africa to inter-act seamlessly with their
workforce using any platform or device. Mobile will ensure that Africans
are able to connect with each other anytime, anyhow and using any
device. GSM networks will be pushed to operational limits and driven far
in excess of intrinsic abilities as Africans derive new and unique
methods of staying connected.

So how can the Rest of the World catch up with the West?

Simply by replicating the lessons learnt from the Mobile Miracle in all
sectors of their economies. These lessons include:

* Opening up of the economy to full participation by local and
international private companies.
* Elimination of monopolies and their abuse of market dominance.
* Minimal, but transparent, regulatory intervention.
* Locating and satisfying the demand for services by the populace.
* Encouraging the use of open standards, protocols and technologies.
* Protecting the consumer from ill-treatment by operators.
* Reducing rural-urban migration by encouraging geographical spread of
* Removing bureaucratic bottlenecks relating to trade and imports.
* Making technology a front burner issue.

African countries can catch up with the West, maybe not as producers of
technology, but definitely as distributors and consumers of the most
innovative technology solutions. Africa can utilize the power of the
Last Mover Advantage to leapfrog and reach the heights already attained
and taken for granted by developed economies.

It appears that the sun has begun to shine on Africa.

Yes, the continent missed the agrarian revolution. Yes, she missed the
industrial revolution. But she earnestly longs not to miss the
information revolution. Would you help her?


Fola Odufuwa is Executive Director, eShekels Limited, Nigeria's premier
technology research firm and is based in Lagos. 


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