In an article published last year, The Stanford Social Innovation Review referred to Africa as the newest “mobile continent,” citing the new-found prevalence of cell phones. Mobile device usage has continued to rise, opening doors for Africans and charities who have found new and effective ways to disseminate information, educate Africa’s population and empower African businesses.
Current data shows that more than 450 million mobile phones, roughly equivalent to nearly 50 percent of the population, are in use in Africa. Cell phones are found in both urban and rural neighborhoods, and the Guardian estimates that by the end of 2014, there may be more than 635 million mobile phones in use.
This technological advancement can be used to humanitarians’ advantage, illustrated by the work of the Praekelt Foundation. To intensify the benefits of the spread of technology in Africa, the Praekelt Foundation has targeted mobile phone users. Services and information that had previously been inaccessible, in the words of founder Gustav Praekelt, are now being harnessed for poverty reduction.
Harnessing the interconnected potential of the cell phone has taken several forms. Of course, it allows for long distance communication, which had previously been unthinkable, but it also assumes forms of aid that may not be immediately intuitive. These include the ability to manage bank accounts and payment systems wirelessly, as with Kenya’s M-Pesa system, to sell crops or other goods at higher rates by connecting sellers with consumers at greater speeds and to access forums where virtual groups discuss the stigmatization that follows mental illnesses, AIDS or physical disorders.
Extreme poverty no longer means extreme isolation like it used to. Effective economic and development programs, such as this one, take advantage of what’s becoming global interconnectedness.
“The digital divide is beginning to close,” says Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “The flow of digital information through mobile phones, text messaging, and the Internet is now reaching the world’s masses, even in the poorest countries, bringing with it a revolution in economics, politics, and society.”
The products of the Praekelt Foundation, applications designed to facilitate communication and connection, vary in scope and impact. They include Ummeli, a mobile network created to find employment opportunities for Africans; Vumi, a “conversation engine” built for emerging markets and spreading ideas; and Jmbo, a way to create, publish and discover mobile content.
Other products are TxtAlert, a way to remind patients about clinic appointments, and Young Africa Live, a mobile platform from which youth can talk and learn about love, sex, disease or anything else they think is important.
Reducing poverty must be in the end a collaborative effort. Connecting Africa is the necessary first step in making this effort strong.
– Adam Kaminski