Mobile Phones And Economic Development In Africa

Jenny C. Aker and Isaac M. Mbiti | Journal of Economic Perspectives (JEP) | June 1, 2010

Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the lowest levels of infrastructure investment in the world. Merely 29 percent of roads are paved, barely a quarter of the population has access to electricity, and there are fewer than three landlines available per 100 people (ITU, 2009; World Bank, 2009a). Yet access to and use of mobile telephony in sub-Saharan Africa has increased dramatically over the past decade. There are ten times as many mobile phones as landlines in sub-Saharan Africa (ITU, 2009), and 60 percent of the population has mobile phone coverage. Mobile phone subscriptions increased by 49 percent annually between 2002 and 2007, as compared with 17 percent per year in Europe (ITU, 2008).

Mobile telephony has brought new possibilities to the continent. Across urban–rural and rich–poor divides, mobile phones connect individuals to individuals, information, markets, and services. In Mali, residents of Timbuktu can call relatives living in the capital city of Bamako—or relatives in France. In Ghana, farmers in Tamale are able to send a text message to learn corn and tomato prices in Accra, over 400 kilometers away. In Niger, day laborers are able to call acquaintances in Benin to find out about job opportunities without making the US$40 trip. In Malawi, those affected by HIV and AIDS can receive text messages daily, reminding them to take their medicines on schedule. Citizens in countries as diverse as Kenya, Nigeria, and Mozambique are able to report violent confrontations via text message to a centralized server that is viewable, in real time, by the entire world.