The last few years have seen something of a revolution in Africa’s communications, banking and safety, and it’s all because of mobile technology.
The numbers of mobile users on the continent have risen dramatically in the last few years, from just 4 million in 1998, to more than 500 million in 2011. For those in Africa, mobile communications technology offers possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise be available in any other way, due to the extremely low levels of electricity available on the continent.
Not usually at the forefront of technological innovations, Africans are revolutionising how we think of mobile technology, utilising the full potential of mobile banking, security, news circulation and payroll technology.
Safaricom, a mobile network in Kenya, was the first company to utilise the full potential of the mobile banking system. Bank accounts are rare in Africa, which has limited access to branches and often cannot afford account charges. To limit the danger of carrying cash and offer a easy transfer service, Safaricom offered a service called M-Pesa, which allows users to transfer cash using their mobiles. A user only needs to send their recipient a text, and their transferred money can be collected from the local M-Pesa branch.
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Mobiles have also allowed one entrepreneur to set up a ‘mobile’ security company, which enables a user to text a security response team in the event of armed attacks. Unreliable police call lines meant that victims are very vulnerable to armed attacks, and can only rarely access help. Entrepreneur Mr Chinery-Hesse set up a mobile network called Hei Julor, which means ‘Hey thief’ in Ghana. Subscribers can send a blank text from one of five registered phones which immediately trigger a response from a security response team. At the same time, 10 friends or neighbours of the victim are alerted so they are able to assist, and in some areas the local radio station will broadcast information telling everyone in the area to assist.
Ambassadors in certain areas are also relaying news and information using picture messages and texts to remote villages. Microfinance organisation the Grameen Foundation aims to establish reliable communication with farming communities in Uganda. The foundation leases smartphones to local farmers, who will share knowledge about the weather, crop diseases and other information for a small wage. Farmers can expect to own their own smartphone within two years.
The most recent technological advance comes from developments by Oxford University, which has designed a mobile communication system to keep water pumps running. Hand Pumps, the main source of drinking water in Africa, often break, with only one in three of the pumps working at any one time. These pumps can often take up to a month to fix, leaving communities with no access to clean water. The new technology by Oxford University will have a mobile sensor in them, which registers the action of the hand pump. The device then sends an automatic message about the water usage at each pump, which tells water supply managers if the pump needs fixing.