Salim Amin, chairman of A24 Media in Nairobi once said, “The mobile phone has had a bigger impact on the African than colonization”. Mobile phones have certainly affected the vast majority of Africans and has subsequently been branded Africa’s Swiss army knife. The mobile infrastructure is the only infrastructure that reliably reaches almost everywhere instantly and thus it absorbs all services for which this is helpful.
The story of the mobile phone in Africa is one of exceptional growth. In 1995, 600,000 mobile phones were being used in sub-Saharan Africa, largely in South Africa alone. By 2009, the number surpassed 300 million units.
As of June 2012, Mobile phones represented more than 90% of all telephone lines in Africa. Market penetration passed the 50% mark in 2010 and is expected to reach 60% in December 2012. Subscriber growth across the continent has slowed to around 17% p.a, but several individual markets are still growing at 50% p.a. or more and others stand at only single-digit penetration rates. Subsequently, the subscriber base is still growing at around 40% per year, but the growth curves are beginning to flatten in Africa’s more mature markets such as Nigeria and South Africa, forcing operators to compete more aggressively on price, quality of service and by introducing new services. One of the most difficult aspects in exploring the future of technology in Africa is getting the timeline right. How fast will a trend evolve, when will it reach saturation level?
Mobile industry in Cameroon
The telecommunication industry in Cameroon within the past couple of years has become more vibrant and appealing. The number of subscribers has risen tremendously; there are approximately nine million telephone users in Cameroon in a country with a population of twenty million inhabitants. In absolute value, it represents 45% of the population of the country. These numbers are certainly below the average, but it still pinpoints the fast evolution of the telecommunication industry, especially the mobile phone – which considerably became more democratic during the last decade as it turned out to be an object of large consumption.
“The opportunities for young people to come up with solutions that address our challenges using a platform like mobile, are huge. That’s what we need to be doing in Africa, instead of looking for aid.” says Microsoft’s Mteto Nyati.
The mobile phone is being considered an important tool for development and this is so for various reasons:-
- Beyond basic connectivity, mobile phones offer benefits such as mobility and security to owners (Donner, 2006).
- Due to their unique characteristics, the mobile phone is an especially good ‘leapfrogger’ it works using the radio spectrum, as such there is no need to rely on physical infrastructure such as roads and phone wires, and base-stations can be powered using their own generators in places where there is no electrical grid (Economist, 2008).
- Mobile phones only require basic literacy, and therefore are accessible to a large segment of the population.
- Cellular phones enjoy some technical advantages that makes them particularly attractive for development. In addition to voice communication, mobile phones allow for the transfer of data, which can be used in the context of applications for the purposes of health, education, commerce or governance.
- Finally, due to factors like increased private sector competition and innovative payment methods (e.g. – prepaid method), mobile phones are increasingly affordable to the lower strata of the population and thereby can be used as a mechanism to ensure greater participation of these groups in the development process.
Internet penetration in Cameroon (per 100 people) was last reported at 4.00 in 2010, according to a World Bank report released in 2011. This shows that there are only 783,955.56 permanent online users as at 2010. The Mobile cellular subscription in the country stands at 9,010,785 as at 2012.
Benefits of Mobile phones in Cameroon
The mobile phone is not only a communication device; it also represents the most accessible computing device to the majority of the people. Mobile phones are tools that can promote development by inspiring new business opportunities and increasing efficiency. Local entrepreneurs’ innovative use of mobile technology is at the heart of this revolution.
Cameroonians are developing mobile application to address issues in the agricultural sector, health and governance. At ActivSpaces (African Center for Technology, Innovation & Ventures), an open collaboration physical space, innovation hub, and technology incubator aimed at providing coaching services and development resources for start-ups and techies in Cameroon, many such ideas are being developed.
Mobile innovations and apps shaping the landscape of Cameroon
Cameroon is embracing mobile technology to address two major challenges: food security and corruption.
Achieving food security in its totality continues to be a challenge not only for the developing nations, but also for the developed world. The difference lies in the magnitude of the problem in terms of its severity and proportion of the population affected. The root cause of food insecurity in developing countries is the inability of people to gain access to food due to poverty and lack of appropriate information.
Projections show that there will be an increase in this tendency unless preventive measures are taken. Many factors have contributed to this tendency including the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS; civil war, strive and poor governance; frequent drought and famine; and agricultural dependency on the climate and environment. Food security on the continent has worsened since 1970 and the proportion of the malnourished population has remained within the 33 to 35 percent range in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Cameroon is taking a bold stand and tackling the issue of food security through the use of modern day technology.
Tackling challenges in the Agriculture sector
Agro-Hub, an idea incubated at the Activspaces, is a startup venture set up to address the expressed needs of rural Farmers to boost demand for their products and make more money from their laborious efforts. Agro-Hub seeks to achieve this through the innovative use of the web and mobile technology to drive demand for farmers’ products, attract better prices and increase farmers’ income.
What makes Agro-Hubs concept resonate well in the Agro-business fraternity is the use of SMS (short message services) and social media such as twitter to reach an infinite number of subscribers spread across the Agricultural belt of Cameroon.
Through mobile information platforms such as Agro-Hub, farmers receive text messages with information that help to improve the productivity of their land and boost their incomes. Governments and agricultural support organisations can use the platforms to distribute information about available subsidies and programmes.
Corruption, Cameroons best kept secret
Is African corruption unique, or is it just like corruption in the many other parts of the world? Citizens of African countries tend to argue that they have an unchangeable lead in the whole business of corruption – their own problem exceeds that of all other countries. International corporate types, however, tend to see corruption in Africa as being no different to that which they face or participate in across a range of countries. In NGO circles corruption in Africa tends to be regarded as a product of western influence and the siren voices of capitalism. Where does the truth lie?
Not a day goes by in Cameroon without a newspaper article on fraud, embezzlement or other corrupt practices, while conversations with locals are peppered with anecdotes about civil servants and private-sector workers demanding bribes. Many people are willing to tell stories of how corruption has affected their families and businesses, but none are prepared to go on the record or take legal action. However, a mobile application called baksheesh is being used to lobby for transparency in governance by profiling bribe allegations and presenting them to the relevant authorities
Baksheesh: Fighting corruption using the Mobile phone
“Baksheesh” in Arabic is money offered to crooked officials to get rid of red-tape. And so “NoBakchich” implies “no more bribes.” That’s the name of a mobile telephone application conceived to primarily run on android mobile handsets, or smartphones. They merge cell or mobile phone technology with e-mail internet applications like e-mail, information searching and social networking. Its architect is 24-year-old Cameroonian-born Hervé Djia. He and fellow developers have been testing “NoBakchich” since early July. They are planning to formally launch it in August for smartphone users. It will also be made available on an internet website. “NoBakchich” provides consumers with the latest information on the cost of public service procedures. The only thing users need to do is install the application on their android phones, then click to find out how to obtain services from government departments. The application got its first lease of life under the hospice of Activespaces and is slowly gaining public appeal as the yard stick that will chase corruption out of Cameroon.
By rapidly improving the citizen’s ability to communicate, mobile applications such as NoBakchich are forcing African governments to pay more and more heed to the principles of good governance. Mobile phones allow users to voice their discontent as voters who feel excluded from the political process and harassed by corrupt officials. They are affording Africans the means of employing “crowdsourcing” to bring about political change. Though still in its infancy, this development is one that bears great potential for improving the daily lives of many Africans.
In less than three decades, the mobile phone has gone from being a status symbol to being a ubiquitous technology that facilitates almost every interaction in our daily lives. One month after the world’s population topped 7 billion in October 2011, the GSM Association announced that mobile SIM cards had reached 6 billion. A 2009 study in India illustrated that every 10 percent increase in mobile penetration leads to a 1.2 percent increase in GDP.
Many crystal-ball gazers have stated that mobile phone use in developing countries is vastly different from what you see on the streets of New York and Bangkok. The African market is under served by technologists and startups. This is where the majority of future growth lies, and Silicon Valley has yet to realize the huge economic opportunities for network operators, handset developers, and mobile startups.