Even before the Uganda visit in Fall 2009 (and since), I had done a great deal of research on the astonishing growth of mobile in Africa. Recently, I saw a report that indicated approximately 33% of African’s have a mobile device, whereas in 2000 that number was roughly 2%. Now a jump of 30+ percent over 10 years is pretty amazing, especially when you consider that amounts to hundreds of millions of Africans. Africans who can now communicate, transfer money, share information, get information, SMS for current crop prices or the latest football or cricket scores. Over the past ten years, Africans have brought themselves into the Information Age. Yes, the argument can be made that the big carriers: Safaricom, Zain, CellTell, MTN, Vodaphone, Orange, etc…enabled this transition. But if it weren’t for African people to see the real, tangible value, personally, in owning a communication device, this would have never unfolded as fast as it has.
The most amazing effect of cellular I saw while in Uganda, was the economic influence of mobile. This includes the roadside stands that sell airtime to “top up” your phone with minutes, SIM cards, pay phones (in the mobile model) or the stands that sell low end mobile devices for easier market entry, or even the phone charging stands using a car battery/power strip/inverters.
The way I see it, the impact comes in two primary forms: 1) positive effects for the consumer of the service and 2) positive economic impact of those that enable the service. Number one has been greatly documented in various studies in how mobile device ownership affects GDP and such, of which I will look at later. Now as far as number two, or the positive impact on those that enable the service, this covers everyone from the large carriers, like MTN all the way to the entrepreneurial women selling fruits and airtime.
The shear economic impression made on a country like Uganda is huge and most difficult, if not impossible to measure. In one sense the growth has provided full time jobs for employees of carriers, doing things like installing and maintaining the mobile networks, to staff operating mobile stores, to sales, engineering, etc…But it’s the ubiquitous roadside stand that fascinates me the most and noting how mobile has impacted those on the lower end of the economic spectrum. This is where a woman running a pay phone or charging service, now has enough money to send her child to primary school. Or perhaps a man running a stand that sells SIM cards, airtime and phones (as well as everything else under the sun)….this may provide just enough to pay for medicine or health care for his family.
The economic influence of the growth of mobile is something I plan on exploring in more depth in a future blog post.