After watching the swift take off of mobile telephony in Africa, some experts have been quick to predict that it would play a core role in solving the economic and social problems of the continent. The technology brings the possibility of getting people together in such a vast territory, but its positive effects both socially and economically have been exaggerated.
1. The economic underdevelopment persists
According to Alison Gillwald, director of ICT Africa! (RIA!) the continent’s mobile phone boom lags behind the rest of the planet in three key areas: Access, quality of the services and price.
The Access problem: Even though the mobile telephony growth rate is very strong, the numbers can be misleading as the initial user base is very small. The number of people without a cellphone remains bigger than those with access to one. Even if they have a mobile phone, some people cannot use some services like the SMS due to illiteracy or lack of skill.
The Quality of services: Voice services are widespread, but many Africans do not have access to more advanced features taken for granted elsewhere, such as those offered by the smartphones (Blackberry, iPhone …).
Prices: Everywhere in Africa, infrastructure deployment is expensive. The study of RIA! concludes that the prices charged to customers are considerably higher than the costs. Alas, the companies providing these services obtain incredible profits. This excessive prices are ‘the result of an excessive taxation on the equipment and the services, the weak price regulation by the government and the incapacity to limit the domination of the big Telecommunication Operators in the market’. These prohibitive prices prevent potential customers from using the services, specially people with a low income.
2. Cellphones in Africa are not the magic remedy to fight against poverty and gender inequality
It is true that mobile phones can help overcome and shape social norms. Kazanka Confort and John Dada from African Women and TIC report that entrepreneurial women in the Muslim Nigeria use the telephone to bypass religious constraints and stop them from talking directly to men and obtain bank accounts. Mobile phones allow many women to consolidate their independence.
However, gender inequality remains even in the usage of the mobile telephone, there is still a big inertia. Kathleen Dig has made a study on mobile phones and their relation to poverty reduction in Uganda. She states that ‘the most vulnerable members of the families don’t always benefit from the new technologies, which often remain under control of the household’s head‘. It’s not only that the head of the family is afraid of an excessive usage of the telephone’s airtime, but also that they want to protect an erosion of their authority.
Due to their own mobility, husbands hold a greater control over the cellphone communications: when they leave and take it with them, the wives don’t have access to it anymore.
For Kiss Brian Abraham, one of the authors of African women and TIC, this leads to a marked separation between a group of women who have access to cellphones and have enough income to use them and another group which doesn’t have access to it, where the poorer women are left behind.