Burroughs Adding Machine

Social justice, arts and politics, life in New York City

The Abundance (and Conundrum) of Cell Phones in Africa

Sure, your phone’s useful in finding a mutual time and place to meet your friend for drinks. But what kind of a difference can a cell phone make in Niger?

Jenny C. Aker and Isaac M. Mbiti provide a pertinent anecdote in their article entitled “Africa Calling” in the most recent issue of The Boston Review. For one businessman in Niger, the introduction of a cellular network seven years ago was life-changing:

Before the tower was built, he had to travel several hours to the nearest markets via a communal taxi to buy millet or meet potential customers, and he never knew whether the person he wanted to see would be there. Now he uses his mobile phone to find the best price, communicate with buyers, and place orders.

Aker and Mbiti go beyond just providing statistics, though. As the authors note, the iconic image of the African phone user is a woman using the cell phone as a tool for improving trade in her local market. But, the authors, ask, does this image correlate to reality? In a nation like Niger–where 85% of the population lives on less than $2 per day–more than 60% have mobile phones. What are the implications for Western businesses that choose to invest in telecommunications rather than infrastructure, microfinance, or even direct aid?

I, too, have noticed the abundance (and everyday reliance) of cell phone networks, whether travelling in sub-Saharan or western Africa. It’s striking how extensive the reach of these companies has become: entire buildings are painted (free of cost for the business) in the vivid colors of a cell phone network as advertising; local markets sell SIM cards that retain user information, while eliminating the need for actually owning a phone (some individuals share a phone to save money).

Though the argument hints of paternalism (is it the West’s right to make such judgements on how–and how much–poor African nations should spend on these networks?), the question still feels somehow worth pondering. Access to information such as price comparison for millet, for example, has affected the economy as a whole; cell phones have aided in civic stability, such as “voter-education and registration campaigns and citizen-based monitoring.”

As Aker and Mbiti posit in this reasoned analysis of cell phone usage in Africa, “Can mobile phones transform the lives of the poor?” It’s a tough question to answer.


Filed under: africa, technology, , , , , , , ,

37 Responses

  1. Carson says:

    I was glad to see someone addressing this issue; I am currently living in Accra, the capital city of Ghana in West Africa. Cell phones are EVERYWHERE. I worked for a month in Osu Children’s Home, an orphanage that houses over 250 children, and was shocked to learn that the majority of the older boys had cell phones! Some days they went hungry and were often forced to wear clothes that were too small or ripped in several places, and yet they were positively attached to their phones. I’m not sure how they obtained them, but mobile theft is quite popular in Ghana (my Verizon phone was stolen the second week I was here!) and you can buy a phone virtually anywhere. If you buy a stolen one, you can get it for as little as 20 cedis, which is not much to me or you, but could be a taxi driver’s salary on a good day. People paint their houses, as you said, with the names of service providers…I’m not sure what the point is there. I think the providers must pay them or help to build the house, otherwise I couldn’t understand there being any motivation in painting your house bright red with a little white ‘Vodafone’ logo. People seem to be obsessed with their phones, too, the way a pre-teen girl would be upon first obtaining one. Anyone that you meet, even for a fraction of a second, wants your contact information. They love then to call you and ask how you are, and then they say ‘okay, I am well too, goodbye’. They simply wanted to see how you are (or so they claim. I think they probably just get a huge kick, some thrill, out of using the phone). They also love to call at all hours of the morning, as most Ghanaians rise between 4-6 am. I realize that mobile phones might be good for the economy of Ghana, but I think they have become an obsession; everyone wants one and it seems that they will go to any length to get one, when really…why do they need them? Perhaps business men like the one mentioned in your post, but the boys at Osu Children’s Home? They don’t need cell phones. Neither do the majority of Ghanaians who do not work in a professional setting. I think it creates more crime and skews people’s perception of what they should be spending their hard-earned money on.

    • madinghana says:

      I concur Carson. It is an obsession here in Ghana But it sure gives employment to Ghanaian youth as they plod the streets selling unit cards

    • gloriadelia says:

      So interesting! And we see a similar phenomenon here in America with every little child having a cell phone attached to their ear.

    • TuesdayGem says:

      There’s just as much of a western obsession with cell phones (myself included – I am glued to my iPhone like a fly in honey), although surely Ghanans are less accustomed to (and therefore more appreciative of) this technology.

      Good article!

  2. gloriadelia says:

    I never thought about cell phones in Africa. At first, I would think they’d have no use for them, but, duh!, it keeps them connected and up to date just like anywhere else. Very interesting, and well written article. Thanks.
    And congratulations on being on the WordPress homepage!

    • I am bombarded with images of an Africa that does not have ‘modern’ amenities. I recently learned that it’s America that is behind in many areas of technology and internet usage. Africa, the Middle East have been accepting computer technology especially the internet at rates that exceed the US’s. On all 6 of the continents internet usage has increased dramatically with USA’s numbers lagging way behind. As with fast growth, there comes bigger headaches. Hip-Hop has traveled the globe, then why not the use of cell phones technology to keep people unconnected on an intimate level.

      Congratulations on being featured on the “First” page of WordPress.com and thanks for creating a wonderful blog post.

  3. TaleTellerin says:

    And apparently, people have even found a way to make cellphones usefull when there’s no money on them. You don’t take the call but just wait to see how often it’ll ring. After a number of call you’ve been ‘morsed’ a message. I can’t remember if I saw a documentary on that or read an article but how clever is that?

    • gvlists says:

      Yes, I know this brilliant messaging system. I have been working in the cell phone industry for a decade. Initially cell phone calls were very expensive. I saw people just ringing once or twice to say hi to their friends and relatives. Especially suitable for long distance or international calls 🙂 Fortunately in my country cell phone companies are not allowed to charge for a not answered calls. One whose calls are diverted to voice mail is not a good friend.

      When GSM phones first came to India I started my job as a radio planner. In coastal cities we observed far too many calls originating from the sea. That was unbelievable because the only people who went there were fishermen. They were not considered potential customers since the service and phone were considered too expensive for them. We were proved stupid engineers. The fishermen were making calls to find the best price in different cities. They then diverted to places where they could fetch best deals. We understood their requirement and turned our transmission antennas to deep into the sea. Result : fish is quite expensive now.

  4. yo says:

    Will they ever get an iPod?

    • Mash says:

      Wow ! Such an extent of Ignorance really annoys me . What makes you think Africa is one big slum ? Ofcourse there are Ipods in Africa you are so narrow minded. I live in Kenya and almost every one has a cellphone.I go to a public university here and almost everyone(+ 80%) has a laptop and we are all supposed to be living in the big slum you created in your head. Everything that you have in the west exists here except a space program and Fox News.In kenya we launch satelites to orbit all the time – but I suspect you didnt know that either.

      • fractone says:

        Wow, that’s really interesting–the satellites, I mean. I know very little about the space programs of other countries, aside from the past US-USSR space race. It is fascinating to hear that Kenya is a part of the Earth’s relationship to the rest of the world.

        Regarding the rest of your thoughts… Africa is not well covered by the US media, for a variety of reasons. What does show up is usually related to war or disasters, so it is hardly surprising that people are ignorant about the less dramatic aspects of African life. We have very few outlets to learn about day-to-day life in your part of the world, no matter how interested we may be.

    • Vee says:

      Are you kidding me????? You think we don’t have ipods? Thats ignorance on a whole new level.

  5. Rohit says:

    I remember when Credit cards were a rage in India. Every kid would love to have it and flaunt it. It is not considered as a status symbol anymore.

    I hope the cell phones becomes more than a status symbol in Africa.

    • Vee says:

      It is NOT a status symbol, it is a mode of communication just as it is anywhere in the world, you people really need to do your research on Africa,this is getting very irritating to those of us who actually live here.

      • rohitmaiya says:

        Africa is not alien to me. I lived in Africa. I was in Nigeria for a few years when my dad was working in a food processing plant there. Nigeria was the richest country in the world at that time. The Military looted the country.

        As far as real research goes, I am planning to do a research on Africa. I feel it is the continent of the future. Africa is today what India was 50-60 years back. It could become like India in another half a century. (could)

  6. Tracy says:

    wow – that’s quite interesting. unexpected, but interesting. I can’t imagine seeing these children walking around gabbing on their cells.


  7. […] the original post here: The Abundance (and Conundrum) of Cell Phones in Africa « Burroughs … Posted in #3, Cell, HOW, ON, TO, Uncategorized, become, in, no, of, phone, the, travel | Tags: […]

  8. Colleen says:

    One factor that is highlighted in the article that no one has discussed here is the true effect of information sharing. Imagine what your life would be like with no internet and/or TV; Africans can now access news and health information through mobile phones. I imagine they also provide the ability to call for emergency services. The impact goes far beyond social interaction, status, and marketplace gain.

  9. Mash says:

    Wow you people really have strange Ideas about us africans. Just because CNN bombards you with Images of darfur and congo( 2 countries out +50)you think we all live in big slums or in mud-huts as in the main photo. As if all westerners are blond, model-thin and live in multi-million mansions in beverly hills.

    I am a Kenyan and in my country of 30 million, 20 million own cellphones. Considering that most of the other 10 million are below 15yrs – thats almost every teenager and adult.

    To make it look like africans only discovered cellphones this year is wrong and totally ignorant. FYI Kenya pioneered mobile payment( you can look this up) systems but you potray africans as using cellphones only for simple things.

    And this thing of we live on -2$/day so its criminal to own cellphones is really offensive. 1st of all Africa is a continent not a country.Just because Congo has some crazy stats doesnt mean all 54 countries live in abject poverty.

    2nd of all the purchasing power of 1$ in africa is almost 20 times that in the west. 1$ might be worthless in your country but here you can have three fulfiling meals for the day for 1$ and still leave some change. So living on 2$/day is actually not bad at all !

    • Haley says:

      Interesting post, but the unfortunate effect is the slight portraying of this article and post as if the cell phone usage is a brand new boom when this has actually been happening over a long period of time.

      Mash- It’s good to hear from someone who knows what it’s like.

    • Vee says:

      I feel you Mash, Im Kenya too and reading this article + some comments in here has got me soooooo mad!

      • rohitmaiya says:

        It is nice to see you all Africans getting mad. You guys should get mad and explain things in order to educate people who are completely ignorant.

        India was earlier known for its curry and beggars, snakes and snake charmers etc. But no anymore. People are coming to India and seeing it for themselves.

  10. fondutv says:

    This is very fascinating indeed. The idea of a cell phone in the African landscape seems odd however if it is helpful for business growth of local merchants maybe it’s not such a bad thing.

  11. Cell phones can certainly make a difference in Africa, the question is just to what extent. Business via telecommunication can only go so far in Africa. It might do more crime than good, we will see.


  12. Songbird says:

    What an interesting post! I had no idea re: the cell phones in Africa- a very thought provoking read…

  13. brelandkent says:

    Thanks for sharing…Great blog!

  14. jean41 says:

    Hello All

    I came across to this site and i know this site from yahoo.

    I’m 30 years old from United Kingdom and i just finishing my vacation to Bali.

    I got lot’s of friends there and i really like to know if there is people here already visiting that country or even came from that place here on this site ?

    The place was really excotic and i really enjoying my travelling there.

    I will check my thread if there is some people on this forum knowing about the country i had visited a lot’s off because i want to ask many question regarding the country i had visited in my travelling.

  15. Technology is spreading everyday, why wouldn’t it reach Africa also.

    People are so obsessed with technology these days that a man actually lost half his finger whilst being mugged for his brand new iPad! the robber so desperate just kept pulling even though the poor man’s finger was stuck in the bag. Don’t believe me? Google it.

  16. shalini says:

    Considering how hard life is……………………. a little pleasure from a gadget such as a cell phone should be okay? I am from India and know and understand poverty. Many people probably won’t ever get out of their current financial situation. so what is wrong in them owning a cell phone?

  17. […] By petrestate The Abundance (and Conundrum) of Cell Phones in Africa […]

  18. […] cell phones the answer? Not long ago, in a blog talking about Africa and the use of cell phones an African claimed that there was a full range of ignorance of these particular Western individuals […]

  19. Vee says:

    This article is so wrong on so many levels, as an African,Kenyan to be exact, i feel insulted by how ignorant some westerners can get regarding Africa.

  20. blackwatertown says:

    Good article. Thanks for the pointer to the Boston Review.
    I agree that the roll out of mobile phone technology brings great benefits in the efficient working of markets, individual empowerment and as a harbinger of democracy.

  21. unforgivens says:

    I found your site from the WordPress.com page which has several sites that are strong enough to make the page. Your site is wonderful and beautiful..


  22. betarica says:

    nice pots… and i think phone is very important to me….

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Ricco Villanueva Siasoco is a Manhattan-based writer and non-profit manager. More

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