Mobile Africa: Leapfrogging the Digital Divide
By Carol Posthumus, Thu Jul 05 00:00:00 GMT 2001

With 15 million cellular phone subscribers, the African technological leapfrog, long punted by digital prophets, is in real-time motion with mobility.

The changes to life brought by the mobile revolution surpass any prophet's theories. The wireless leapfrog does not come with a manual, and today mobile life is happily unpredictable in Africa.

During the week of the total solar eclipse in Johannesburg, South Africa, a local software entrepreneur's wife gave birth to their son. Opting to spend as much time as possible with his wife and new baby, amused, surprised (but agreeable) business contacts were informed by Edward Bouwer that meetings were being moved to the coffee shop in the hospital.

This baby had eclipsed normal business arrangements. Contact, though, was maintained effectively with his software development team, his clients, and his wife Carol, upstairs in the maternity ward - thanks to Bouwer's ever-present mobile phone.

"What difference does it make where you hold meetings? There is no need to be bound to a place. It's the people who are important. This was a joyful, important time for me and I wanted to be with my wife and son, and I did not feel that it was necessary to stop the flow of business. Technology, after all, enables us to be flexible and integrate different parts of our lives, if we so choose. It is up to us to make full use of the tools we have to create the lifestyles we need."

Bouwer is one of just over 9 million South African cellular telephone users. Cellular Online, an African mobile consultant and web site, reckons that the South African market, the largest in Africa, has potential for 18 million users by 2005. Furthermore, 9,000 users - mostly prepaid customers - sign up every day in the country. Cellular Online forecasts growth of a staggering 60% for the African market in the next 12 months.

Cellular phones, since their introduction to South Africa in 1994, the same year of the first democratic elections in the country, have long extended beyond the preserve of the wealthy and elite set.

Powered by need and status

Indeed, it's not just entrepreneurs like Bouwer who enjoy the mobile privileges of being free of the burdens of geography in life and business. Carol Bouwer, his wife, an actress and well-known television personality and role model for many youth in South Africa, says: "People often observe that the massive growth of mobile telephones in Africa is driven by need, primarily. It is true that the need in Africa for phones is enormous."

She added, "But mobile phones also have a lot to do with status: and one shouldn't under-estimate the power of this factor. For young people, a phone is definitive of your level-of-cool. Young people in Soweto, where I grew up, today regard a mobile phone as an essential status tool. People whose parents may not have ever had a home-phone now see the latest and trendiest phone as a necessity. They would not be seen out and about with an old or dated one."

Increasingly, like many South Africans - across the earnings spectrum - the Bouwers do not see a landline as a must-have necessity in their new home on a tranquil country estate, replete with zebras and antelopes. Most young South Africans - whether wealthy or not - are in wireless mode. After all, just about anyone can afford - and wants - a prepaid package.

The old saying about people always being able to "find" money for cigarettes and booze, these days seems to apply to consumer spending on mobile phones in South Africa. In fact, even the nation's major beer retailer reported a highly unusual 6% drop in beer sales - and put this down to the combination of cellphones, the lottery (introduced last year) and gambling (legalised in 1994) taking a bite out of their business.

Landline phones are becomes museum pieces

"Our young children, I believe, will not even know what a landline telephone is in years to come. It will be a historical curiosity," says Eric Mafuna, CEO of Africa Now, a research and marketing strategy group. "This move is a massive shift for people. The landline telephone was always something that was about the house. A phone was something that came with a house. But the mobile is about you: it comes with a person."

Mafuna, also a founder member of the networking business group, the Black Management Forum, has seen business trends come and go in Africa. He says, though, that global connectivity and the "available, anytime, anywhere" arrival of the mobile is truly revolutionary. "The new culture of mobile goes beyond the leapfrogging of technologies: it's so much more than that. We are seeing the writings and theories of people like Marshall McLuhan happening in our lifetimes - and more," observes Mafuna.

He chuckles: "Mobile is like magic really, it is instant. Maybe mobile is like prayer: you just make a connection whenever you need or want to do so."

Changes to family as well as entrepreneurial culture in Africa are two areas Mafuna sees as being dramatically transformed by mobility.

Elaborates Mafuna: "Younger people are now in closer contact with adults. The older generations are instantly and directly accessible by children. The old traditional boundaries, in place for centuries, whereby children were always kept at a social distance away from the adults and elders in the family have been eroded by connectivity. Kids feel it is natural to phone anyone in the family and say 'hi'. They have their own phones, and they donýt have to ask a parent's permission to make a call on their mobile."

Connecting families anew, with mobile devices

The enormous geographic distances separating family members in Africa - along with the challenges of often-inadequate infrastructure - mean that many people tend to lose touch with their relatives.

Says Mafuna: "I see more family reunions in Africa coming as a result of connectivity. I imagine a greater strengthening of familial bonds as a part of the overall extension of our personal network. I personally look forward to a time when family news and family pictures can be viewed easily on mobile phones."

A new breed of young African entrepreneur has risen due to mobile telephony too. "Many young entrepreneurs use their phones to 99% of the technology's capacity, using all the functions. It is a natural and very productive part of their personal and business style. This is a new kind of entrepreneur with well-honed communication skills and highly enterprising: who uses his or her phone as an integrator. Each call or message is seen as a business opportunity," opines Mafuna.

Mafuna feels the "sky is the limit" for the mobile entrepreneur in Africa. "The entrepreneur today is unlimited by the boundaries of time and space, if they are mobile. The only constraint is not having a real experience of a different environment. My six-year-old son always says: 'where exactly are you?' While he can connect to me, he still needs a description of the place I am in, whether it be Chicago or Cape Town - this is the challenge too facing mobile entrepreneurs."

Mobile commerce bulls in Africa

Moreover, despite somewhat cynical and elitist views that Africa is made up of a lot of people who are outside banking technologies ("never mind e-commerce and mobile commerce," say the Afro-pessimists) many business people believe Africa is especially well suited to mobile commerce.

Brokat Technologies Country Manager for South Africa, Cliff van Tonder, for instance, is bullish on the potential for mobile commerce in Africa. Van Tonder joined the mobile commerce industry as a stalwart of the information technology industry with many years of experience working in South, West and East Africa.

Says van Tonder: "The rate of adaptation to mobile in Africa has been unprecedented, there's no other way to describe it. I believe that just the way the rate of mobile telephony expansion proved the forecasters' original predictions to be total under-estimates for Africa; so too will it go with mobile commerce."

Indeed, he feels that mobile commerce may be just the solution for people who are known as "unbanked." While an m-wallet may be a luxury gadget for people in urban settings, van Tonder says mobile commerce may mean a lifeline for people in remote areas of Africa. "If you have to, for example, bear the costs and vast inconveniences of going a very long way to a city to pay your monthly bills; the solutions offered by mobile commerce - the cellphone becoming your wallet - is highly appealing and convenient. For a small businessperson in Africa too, mobile commerce on mobile phones could mean a whole new era. A new business and financial system revolution."

Mobility as a right in the future - with no limitations

Market research specialist Mafuna concurs with van Tonder's views. He calls for a different approach to technological development in the future.

"Urban affluent needs too often have driven technologies' movements. Hopefully there will be a shift in global thinking, wherein developments are not only influenced by urban and affluent needs, with the benefits coming to rural people or those in less privileged environments as spin-offs later in the day.

"Africa's contribution to the development of mobile technologies would be to create tools that are not so dependent on electricity and not so constrained by language and literacy. In South Africa we have many people who are illiterate and eleven official languages, yet our cellular service provider's message default speaks to our callers in English in a woman's voice. This can be highly confusing for our relatives and contacts that hail from the country areas.

"Mobile access should be a right in the future: with accessibility being defined, truly, as wherever you are. One can hope to see a time where we are no longer limited by our tools. As when we break these limitations, then we see the world as it really is."

It's Mobile World Week on TheFeature. From mobile developments in Brazil, Africa and Asia to global standardization issues, you'll find it this week on TheFeature.

Carol Posthumus is a freelance writer, specializing in business and technology developments in Southern Africa. She lives in Midrand, South Africa.