Not long ago a Kenyan from Nairobi was on a trip to Denmark. He took a taxi from the airport to downtown Copenhagen and was very surprised to learn that he could not pay for the ride with his phone. He – like the rest of us – had to go through the hassle of paying with cash or credit card. He had come to a country which in many respects was lagging behind the African testing ground for breakthrough ideas and innovative high-tech products. I was told the story about the Kenyan by Louise Voller, a young journalist working for NGO Forum “The World’s Best News” – We want to communicate progress, she says. There’s enough in the news about all the depressive things, so we asked ourselves: What’s moving? And the answer is new technology.
We all know the mPesa story, which is about how millions of Africans are moving money around with their fingertips and a mobile phone. It has revolutionized the lives of many. But the same phone is about to change their lives in many other ways. The economist Jeffrey Sachs said a while ago that the mobile phone will turn out to be the invention with greatest impact on mankind.
But how, Louise Voller? Give us a couple of examples! – Sure, she says, it’s about sms or text-messages which by far is the most popular way of communication. There’s a lot of places where the poor don’t have access, banks are one thing, but often they don’t move in circles where the useful information is. A farmer with a mobile phone can take advantage of a service that updates him on facts, e.g. prices, demand, weather and offers from distributors. He can save time, he can boost his production, he doesn’t have to travel to get information, and he gets access to more markets. He has hands on so to speak. Research has shown that farmers who use this kind of sms-service can increase their production with 36 %.
Often the poor man dies earlier than the rest, sometimes from a disease which could have been avoided or treated. Distribution of knowledge, which can save lives, is now just a click away. Also in areas where there never has been a landline to call a doctor on. Right now there are more than 500 “mobile for health-projects” (mHealth), most of them in Africa. The WHO estimates that sms-services can reduce the mortality among mothers and child mortality with 30 %. In Zambia a sms can reduce the response time from lab to doctor with 50 %. Valuable time which can mean the difference between life and death for a baby born with HIV.
– Another interesting thing, says Louise Voller, is that today 50 million children have no legal ID. They are not registered anywhere. That is potentially dangerous, they can disappear, be victims of trafficking and the parents can’t even put out a missing person report. Now, with the phone they can report the birth of a child to the authorities with a sms. Other areas are corruption, which can now easily be reported. And in some areas in DRCongo public investments rose with 36 % after people could voice their opinion via sms in public hearings. They didn’t feel left out any more.
Louise’s list is endless, but she stresses that whereas mPesa long ago has proven its value most of the other mobile services have yet to prove theirs. But the potential is there.
Funny enough, as I returned home after my meeting with Louise, I saw an article about how sms also can save lives. There are counterfeit drugs everywhere in the third world, and it kills millions. In 2008, the MPedigree Network was born to stop the illegal trade, which makes up as much as 10 percent of the global drug market. Each MPedigree-certified medicinal product has a unique number code and verification phone number, which is revealed via scratch-off on the box or jar. The consumer then sends a sms, tapping in the code details, to the toll-free number to determine whether the drug is legit and safe (and more expensive) to take. With help from partners such as Hewlett-Packard and mobile operators Orange and Airtel, MPedigree has now expanded outside its home market of Ghana to other West African countries and Asia.
I guess I first learned about how common mobile phones are in Africa during one of my first visits to Kenya five years ago. I was coming from Nakuru heading for Nairobi, the aircon working at full blast in the blistering sun when my eyes fell on a little boy dressed in rags looking after a herd of goats in the barren landscape. He was holding something in his hands, and I saw I was a mobile phone. I suppose he was writing: Hi mum, I’m coming home soon, what’s for supper?