Sunday, October 11, 2009

Cellular phones contributing to African development


New York Times: In Rural Africa, a Fertile Market for Mobile Phones Global Cell phone use soaring - UN

id21: Insights

ABC KGO-TV: Phones used to solve medical issues in Africa

In a part of the world where many Americans would not expect to find coverage, cellular phones are fueling a surge in development.  Telephones are bringing new methods of communication and important market information to farmers who previously were isolated and disconnected.  Other citizens are using phones to transfer money and sell goods.  Africa is the fastest growing cell phone market and developers are scrambling to feed it with new services, products, and improved technology.

The attachment that people show to their cells phones is impressive by any standard.  Some people charge phones with car batteries and walk miles to electricity for a charge.  The reason is that for many farmers, the phone has become an indispensable tool.  Farmers take photos and fill out detailed diagnostics on sick plants and receive advice from crop extension services run in major cities.  In Uganda this has been used to stop the spread of banana disease and protect the livelihood of an estimated 30 million farmers.  Farmers can also use their phones to track market prices and know when to harvest and bring their crops to market.  Previously, the lack of market information had been a major problem for farmers.  But by using their phones, farmers now can locate the best price with much lower transaction costs than before.

Development organizations have started using cell phones to expand their reach as well.  They are being used to make health clinics run more effectively and save lives.  Projects have digitized medical records that can now be sent via text message.  Instead of awkwardly handling boxes of paperwork when traveling deep into rural villages, they now quickly access and retrieve them remotely.  Throughout Africa, these organizations are using the phones like small portable computers.

Mobile phones are also being used in Africa to expand the banking sector.  For many people, saving and transferring small amounts of money is not common practice.  Formal brick and mortar banks may be inaccessible, but phones put basic banking tools literally in the palms of peoples’ hands.  Additionally, they are catching on as a quick, easy, and cheap way to send remittances home.

These new technologies have brought the promise of the future to rural parts of Africa.  The International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency, has described the continued growth of this field as “vital” to helping people participate in the knowledge economy.  The ITU has also found a correlation between technology growth and the strength of health and education.

Discussion Questions:

1) What can more developed countries learn from the innovative ways that Africa is using cell phones?

2) How can “first-world” cell phone manufacturers makers and development organizations work closer together to encourage even more innovation and wider-spread dispersal?

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