Thursday, June 3, 2010

A rant: Cell phones and Africa

On the plane this morning (I'm making my way to the Law and Society Association annual meetings), I flipped through the Wall Street Journal and saw an article about Africa illustrated by a photo of a dark hand holding a Nokia. Could this be yet another incarnation of the hackneyed “cells phones revolutionizing Africa oh wow farmers can get commodity prices on their mobiles and no longer get rooked at the market” stock piece?

Indeed it was, in a way.

I swear, these articles come out so often college students could make a drinking game of it – take a shot every time you see the stock-prices-on-phones example! Or is it some editorial world where's Waldo, planted here and there to see who's actually reading (is there a prize?) I, for one, have lost count of how many times I've seen it since the first coverage around 2005. And yet I've never seen a single farmer consulting commodity prices on his phone.

The WSJ article at least took a novel tack: turns out those commodity prices on a phone aren't so revolutionary after all. Service providers in Uganda are finding that once people have to pay for the quotes, few deem the service worthwhile.

So can we move on to another story now?


  1. I've also never seen a farmer consult market prices on their cell phone, at least not in the Central African Republic. But cell phones in Africa have led to other changes, such as crisis mapping with Ushahidi, money transfers with Mpesa, or international calls without roaming costs. Or you are getting tired hearing about these as well?

  2. Maybe cell phones are actually a bit like microfinance. They got really hyped up but for the wrong reasons. Maybe they aren't going to revolutionise the economy, just make peoples lives better. Not richer, just better.

  3. You're right, Nico -- there are some really cool innovations that have come with cell phones. I should have narrowed my criticism to the commodity quotes example, since there are many better cell phone stories out there. I can only imagine how revolutionary Mpesa must be; still nothing like that in CAR, but it's so needed!

  4. Louisa- I have a job now where I am putting together some research on the telecom industry in Africa, thought of you and found this blog! I'm looking at M&A trends in the region... if you have any reading suggestions for me, I would be most appreciative! I really don't know anything about the African market (Asian markets are where I have more personal experience).. I absolutely thought that all the farmers were consulting their phones for market prices. It's interesting to hear that the m-banking is an important innovation, though.

    take care,
    Emily Smith