At the start of the new millennium, mobile telephones were a novelty in Africa. An OECD Observer article claimed then that leapfrogging had started as mobile telephony took hold. In most countries it took weeks or months for people to get a landline. And in many countries, the communications infrastructure was insufficient, and poorly maintained.
In the cities of sub-Saharan Africa, from Cape Town to Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Luanda, Kinshasa, Lagos, you name it, 50 to 80% of people live in slums, most of whom are denied access to health services, education, clean water and sanitation. Computers? Forget that, they come later after decent shelter, human and civil rights.
More often than not in urban Africa, the city economy thrives on the informal sector, and the wonderful small initiatives people take to improve their lives in their own way. Big government and big business are another world away, which in Africa belongs to the wealthy elite. They live on the other side of town, sealed off from the sea of humanity, eking out a living in the slums. In Nairobi, there are nearly a million people living in a slum called Kibera, which is roughly the size of a golf course. In fact, it is right next door to the exclusive Royal Golf Course. In Cape Town, the slums are growing daily. Like Nairobi, Cape Town has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world–an internationally accepted yardstick of the gap between rich and poor.
As mobile phones became cheaper and smarter, more Africans bought them. Mobile telephones allowed Africa to bypass the traditional terrestrial systems prevalent elsewhere in the world. And their impact is greater in Africa than anywhere. Example: in anarchic, conflict-torn Somalia, mobile telephone services are more easily accessible, available and cheaper than in most other places in the world; Uganda is believed to have three times as many SIM cards as people living within its borders. Kenya is similar. The mobile phones have enabled Africa to leapfrog computers too, despite the digital and educational divide. Africa now stands poised to take advantage of new tablet devices. Most people use the French developed M-Pesa mobile phone payment system to send small sums to loved ones or pay their bills.
So, as the OECD Observer predicted in 2001, Africa was able to leapfrog straight from little or no phone service to mobile phones and the Internet, but the gap between the industrial and the developing world remains enormous. People have the phones, but most have little credit. There is also a literacy issue as well. Radio and TV still definitely rule, not the Internet.
Is this an indicator of the digital divide that the vast majority of people in Africa today still rely on the radio for news and information? In Kenya, for example, like in Côte d’Ivoire across the continent, the BBC World Service and Radio France International are available to listeners on the FM radio. Local television channels in Africa offer an even wider range of international broadcasters.
Still, the potential for growth of the mobile telephone and tablet market in Africa is arguably the greatest anywhere in the world. Three major undersea cables serving east Africa mean that the Internet is faster in Nairobi than in the continent’s wealthiest economy, South Africa.
And how appropriate that leapfrogging has been. Just 60 kilometres west of Nairobi, in the Great Rift Valley, some of the world’s earliest hand-held devices are to be found if you care to look carefully: those beautifully shaped stone hand-tools made by our Homo erectus ancestors dating back some 900,000 years.
Jütting, J., J. de Laiglesia (2009), Is Informal Normal? Towards More and Better Jobs in Developing Countries, Development Centre Studies, OECD Publishing.
James, Edwyn (2001), “Learning to bridge the digital divide” in OECD Observer No 224, January.
©OECD Observer No 293, Q4 2012