The mobile phone comes first in Africa; before electricity, water, toilets or even food

In 16 African countries, mobile phone networks are near-universally available; the poor would rather skip a meal than be short of airtime

SPEAKING at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Monday, Claudio Chiche, chief commercial officer of Mozambique carrier Mcel, told European telecommunications carriers seeking a slice of the billions of dollars that will flow to companies that build mobile-payment systems, to look to Africa for help.

What does Chiche know that others might not? Well, this is the extent of the mobile revolution in Africa: Mobiles are more important than flushing toilets, poor people would rather go without food than be short of airtime, and mobile phones are the “great equaliser” used to blur social boundaries.

new working paper from the pan-African think-tank Afrobarometer examines the availability of five types of infrastructure – mobile phone coverage, electricity, piped water, roads and sewerage services – in rural and urban Africa. The data reveals that mobile phone coverage is the most widely available infrastructure across the continent.

Across the 33 examined countries, between 70% and 100% of respondents reside in areas with mobile phone coverage.

In fact, in 16 countries, mobile phone networks are either universally or near- universally available, and only four countries have service availability under 80%: Madagascar, Guinea, Liberia, and Tanzania.

This suggests that mobile phone connectivity is possible in the overwhelming majority of Africa, even if actual household-level ownership or access rates may be lower. Without electricity at home, mobile phone users typically charge their phones using solar, car battery, or at a central charging station in town.

But sewerage services are the least available infrastructure in Africa. On average, less than three in 10 respondents live in areas with sewerage services.

Only seven countries have coverage rates exceeding 50%: Algeria (84%), Cameroon (69%), Tunisia (68%), Morocco (64%), South Africa (64%), Egypt (63%), and Ghana (51%).

Sewerage service availability was 10% or less in five countries, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Mozambique, Niger, and Tanzania.

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Large urban-rural disparities also exist within countries. Zimbabwe demonstrates the greatest disparity between urban and rural coverage rates (92% vs. 7%), followed by Tunisia, Botswana, Morocco, and South Africa.

Rural respondents in six countries had no sewerage service at all, and they include “rich” Africa: Botswana and Cape Verde are among them, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Niger, and Senegal.

Rural sewerage coverage levels were less than 1% in three other African countries: Kenya (0.5%), Malawi (0.4%), and Tanzania (0.8%).

The availability of electricity, piped water and roads occupy a more intermediate position.

It’s mobile first

There seems to be a loose hierarchy of infrastructure rollout, and mobile phone services are typically connected first in all countries surveyed. After this, the next to arrive is electricity and piped water, though the sequence in which they are connected varies. Still, when one arrives, so does the other not long after.

The survey found that respondents typically had mobile phone coverage, electricity and piped water before a road was built, and last to arrive was sewerage services.

The exception is Tanzania, where roads were built before electricity or water connected. Tanzania  is in the middle of a ten year integrated roads programme, which is designed to upgrade 70% of the country’s 10,300km of main roads and build some 3,000km of new roads.

As a result, Tanzania’s road networks are now better developed and maintained than most of its neighbours.

It makes sense that a government would build a road only after “something” was already happening in a particular area, otherwise we would have many roads to nowhere.That something – trade, investment, and so on – is made easier by a road network, but can happen in the absence of it.

But what is remarkable is that mobile phone coverage would be universal, even when other basic infrastructure can be so scanty.

It suggests that mobile phones in Africa are not seen as a tool of leisure just for telling stories.

In fact, most Kenya’s poor would rather go hungry and walk to work than be short of airtime, according to a 2013 study commissioned by the World Bank.

The study found that seven out of 10 poor people would rather cut back food expenses to spare money for airtime, says  this story by the Business Daily , in the hope that having an operational phone could help them earn some money.

With most being casual labourers with an unpredictable income stream, they need to be reachable in case someone calls them with a job.

similar study in Langa township, South Africa, found that poor residents went a step further: they were willing to spend a great deal of money to buy a fancy expensive phone.

The researcher documented township residents who had bought expensive phones such as Samsung Galaxies, but they were perpetually short of airtime, and so although the phone was “smart”, it was not particularly useful – the owner could not actually call, text or browse.

An end in itself

“Having sufficient airtime and access to electricity to charge phones…for some residents, seemed secondary to actually owning a phone,” researcher Crystal Powell writes.

Powell says that this suggests the mobile phone, was not a means to an end, it was an end in itself, the study said, a device used to mitigate the social exclusion the township residents have to live with every day.

For residents of Langa, mobile phones are “the great equaliser”, sending subliminal messages to more affluent, mainstream Cape Towners: “‘I may live in a shack or the township, I may not have a car or a house as nice as yours but I do have a nice phone (I might even have the same phone as you!)’”

The mobile phone could thus be said to distinguish those who live from those who merely survive in Langa – according to Powell, “those who live versus those who really live, meaning they live to the fullest, which often means splurging money on expensive mobile phones.”


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