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A woman spoke on a cell phone while selling watermelons in Nairobi, Kenya.

KHALIL SENOSI, Associated Press

Mobile technology can pull Africa forward

  • Article by: BENJAMIN BRADLEY
  • October 26, 2011 - 6:29 PM
When I walked into my first African slum this August, it wasn't the tin shanties or the children playing around smoldering piles of waste that surprised me. It was the towering Masaai warrior texting on his cell phone -- punching away at those tiny buttons with precision that would put American teenagers to shame.

Mobile technology has sprouted in nearly every corner of Africa. Cell phones are like digital cockroaches -- in even the harshest conditions, such as impoverished Chad or war-torn Somalia, mobile markets are growing. Between 2003 and 2008, Africa experienced the world's fastest growth in mobile subscribers.

Yet, Africa is struggling. Since the 1970s, Western aid has increasingly turned its focus toward social welfare services, alleviating short-term problems but not supplying Africans with the resources they need to function independently.

Africa doesn't just need another meal; it needs the tools to grow from within. How does the old saying go? If you teach a man to fish ...

Mobile-based technology could be the answer.

Broadband towers are significantly cheaper than their landline counterparts. Cell phones like Vodaphone's 150 model sell for less than $15, have a battery life of five hours (or 10 days on idle), and cost fragments of a cent per minute for airtime. Such technology is now commonplace in slum territory.

Since 2008, the number of mobile subscribers in Africa has nearly doubled to around 500 million. Competition over this growing market has driven down cost and has spurred innovation. Many cell phones come with nifty extras, like built-in FM radios and LED flashlights. This summer Nokia even released a cell phone charger that is fueled by bicycling, the perfect product for people without electricity.

The acquisition of a cell phone is a simple blessing: a digital mailbox that rises above a lack of infrastructure within the slums. The impoverished Africans I saw chatting on their phones had a tremendous sense of well-being. The ability to contact friends and family is empowering. To get in touch after a natural disaster or violent outbreak -- invaluable.

When this simple communication is paired with mobile services, such as FrontlineSMS: Medic, slum inhabitants gain access to the outside world. Frontline is simple. Slum residents text medical questions to a single hospital number. Computer software delivers them to medical staff, who then communicate one-on-one via instant message. They diagnose patients, offer medical advice and send out emergency medical aid.

Another mobile service is M-PESA, a mobile-money system. It allows Africans to store and transfer funds through instant message, a concept that greatly appeals to people who don't have access to banking services.

M-Pesa can also come in handy when you're pulled over at a police barricade. It did for me and my Kenyan guide, Peter, who was stopped for using an FM radio without a license. Peter figured the policeman likely saw a car full of Americans and was hoping for a bribe. Instead, Peter took out his cell phone, texted an associate for some money, and after the funds were transferred to his cell phone Peter paid for the license using digital money.

Who would have thought a cell phone could combat men with assault rifles?

Technology like the new iPhone 4S could plug Africans into the matrix of opportunity. Just envision data-based networks that supply constant information on agriculture, jobs, education, local market prices, weather, health information, or even YouTube's how-to videos.

The ability to construct complex mobile programs is not far off. Technology is advancing at near-exponential rates. Large-scale projects are already underway, such as India's digital ID system, which uses mobile technology to identify undocumented citizens, allowing a voiceless population the chance to vote.

Meanwhile, Africa is on life support. Since 1960, more than $500 billion in Western aid has been pumped into its veins. By dedicating more aid to mobile-based programs, the West could see Africa catapulted out of its comatose slumber.

Benjamin Bradley is a graduate student in technical communication at Metropolitan State University. Last August he traveled to Kenya as documentarian for the Alliance of Renewal Churches, spending time in Nairobi's slum territory.

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