Depressed by the deathwish politics of the USA and Europe? Enjoy an album of music found on cellphones of users in the Sahel (Mali, Chad, and similar beauty spots):
(Credit. Buy the album for $5; they say $3 will go to the artists.)
This post is a celebration of the conquest of Africa by the mobile phone.
Somali mobile phone entrepreneurs roll out a new chat service:
Wikipedia lists six mobile phone companies in Somalia, whose nominal government controls Mogadishu and little more. A political map of the current fiefdoms.
Some Somali users (source 1, source 2):
The eastern provinces of the Congo – the Democratic Republic of – are usually reported on as the worst places in the world. Something like five million people died in the 1995-2003 war. Things are somewhat better now, but a recent flareup of violence led to 200,000 people in North Kivu fleeing their homes from the Rwandan-backed M23 rebel militia. Its leader is Bosco ‘Terminator’ Ntaganda, who lives in Goma a handy 200 yard run from the Rwandan border. The International Criminal Court has two arrest warrants out against him for, says the BBC,
recruiting child soldiers, rape, murder, persecution based on ethnic grounds and the deliberate targeting of civilians.
This business is hazardous. To ensure the safety of your highly ransomable technical staff and vulnerable equipment, you need to strike deals, face to face, with heavily armed psychopaths and sociopaths like Mr. Ntaganda. It´s a bit like trading in France in the 14th century; but people did. The phone companies do have strong hands against the warlords. The service they offer is extremely valuable to these key customers, for command-and-control of their troops, marketing the loot and stashing away the proceeds, and above all early information of threats. Mr. Ntaganda has many other enemies than the ICC, less particular about due process. They benefit from phone service too, but on balance it´s more useful to him.
These are extreme cases. In orderly Ivory Coast, penetration was 68% in 2010, with near-universal coverage. This is representative. Overall, there are now around 700 million mobile phone subscriptions in Africa for its 1 billion people (up from 5% to 70% in a decade) and sharing and loaning increase the number of those who have some sort of access.
What happens next? Smartphones, browsers, social media, maps. The fixed-line networks in Africa are usually disaster areas (Somalia is an exception, you can get a line installed in towns in 3 days) and they are getting squeezed out by the dominant mobile operators, so fixed-line broadband is only advancing slowly. The Internet in Africa is mobile.
Will ordinary Africans be able to afford it? Back-of-the envelope calculations suggest they might. 3G and better mobile Internet service costs a lot more than plain vanilla voice service in advanced countries, but it’s not clear than this fairly reflects higher costs. A 150-character SMS message uses hardly any bandwidth: about 2 kb. A T1 fixed phone line uses 64 kbps per virtual circuit, or 1.4 MB for a 3-minute conversation; VOIP is more economical, but not by much. Downloading half-a-dozen 500KB web pages pushes up usage by one order of magnitude, but not two. So with competition and continued technical progress thanks to Dr. Moore’s law, the African Internet may well become affordable beyond the urban middle class. A basic new handset goes for $10; a no-frills Chinese smartphone, with the same processor as the original iPhone, for $120.
It’s hard to imagine the huge impact this is having on African society. Rich countries have had widespread telephones for a century, on top of efficient postal services. In Africa, a mobile phone means a farmer’s wife can for the first time make an appointment in the town, check a market price for her produce, pay bills and receive payments securely, and talk to her son in the capital. We have already seen the economic impact: contrary to public perception, growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa have been over 5% for a decade. There are other factors of course in the turnround, including the despised policies of the Washington consensus, but phones are certainly a big part of it.
We have still to see the impact of the Internet on politics and society. The farmer’s son can join a protest movement, her daughter can find out about contraception, and meet a boyfriend from a rival tribe. We ain’t seen nothing yet.