Photo: Emily Metcalf
Photo: Emily Metcalf

BY JACK DINI – Today there are more than 5.6 billion mobile phone subscribers in a world with a population just over 7 billion. Yet, a billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion to basic sanitation. (1)

In this age with the spread of technological abundance it’s worthwhile looking at India and Africa.

Far more people in India, the world’s second most populous country, have access to a cell phone than to a toilet and improved sanitation, according to UN experts. Roughly 366 million people (31 percent of the population) had access to improved sanitation in 2008. Meanwhile 545 million cell phones were connected to service in India’s emerging economy. (2)

The situation is somewhat similar in Africa since perhaps nowhere is the speed of technological change more visible. As a market for mobile phones, Africa as a whole has seen a 20 percent rate of growth each year for the past five years.  More than 624 million Africans have cell phones. By the end of 2012 estimates say there will be more than 735 million mobile subscribers in Africa. This is equivalent to a 65 percent penetration rate, meaning that out of every 100 people, 65 will have some form of mobile connectivity. (3)

Sara Corbett reports, “Something that’s mostly a convenience booster for those of us with a full complement of technology at our disposal—landlines, Internet connections, TVs, cars—can be a life saver to someone with fewer ways to access information. A ‘just in time’ moment afforded by a cellphone looks a lot different to a mother in Uganda who needs to carry a child with malaria three hours to visit the nearest doctor but who would like to know first whether that doctor is even in town. It looks different too, to the rural Ugandan doctor who, faced with an emergency, is able to request information via text message from a hospital in Kampala.” (4)

Because the continent is poor in landlines and hospital beds but rich in cellphones, mobile health offers opportunities to provide health care at low cost. More than 10,000 people get appointment reminders by text message from South Africa’s largest HIV treatment site. (5)

The phones have created jobs. Migrant workers who leave home for distant jobs can stay in touch with their families. Businesses can talk to customers and suppliers, and employees in different offices can speak with each other. Farmers now compare prices before selling their produce. The nearest doctors can be located. Mobile banking has been introduced. During elections, people have taken pictures documenting vote fraud or intimidation with their mobile phones and sent text messages about possible improprieties. (6)

One problem that remains even in the age of cutting-edge cellular technology: How does an African family in a hut lighted by candles charge a mobile phone? A bicycle-driven charger is said to be on the horizon, but that would require a bicycle, a rare possession in much of rural Africa. Sharon LaFraniere notes, “In some regions, the solution is often a car battery owned by someone who does not have a prayer of acquiring a car. One woman keeps one keeps one in her home. She takes it by bus 20 miles to the nearest town to recharge it in a gas station. For 80 cents each, she lets neighbors charge their mobiles from the battery. She gets at least five customers a week, a lot of people she says.” (7)

References

  1. Ronald Bailey, “A more better future,” Reason Magazine, February 7, 2012
  2. “Greater access to cell phones than toilets,” United Nations University, April 2010
  3. Naeesa Aziz, “African cellphones to get free Wikipedia access,” bet.com/news, February 15, 2012
  4. Sara Corbett, “Can the cellphone help end global poverty?” The New York Times Magazine, April 13, 2008
  5. Ann Tracy Mueller, “Mobile phones advance third world health care,” healthcarecommunication.com, June 1, 2011
  6. Rollo Romig, “Africa’s cellphone revolution,” newyorker.com, March 4, 2011
  7. Sharon LaFraniere, “Cellphones catapult rural African to 21st century,” The New York Times, August  26, 2005

 

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