Texting isn’t just for late night conversations and killing boredom. Short bursts of instant communication are connecting some isolated African communities to vital information.
Because of widespread poverty in Africa, the technology culture there has followed a different path than the West. Because computers are so expensive, affordable mobile phones have become the ubiquitous form of communication. Between 2003 and 2008, Africa had the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world. On average, more than one-third of the African population has a mobile plan, with some areas reaching almost two-thirds market penetration.
Non-profit organizations have seized on this unexpected opportunity to bring lifesaving health care information, quality K-12 educational curricula, and advanced farming techniques to millions. Here’s a look at some of these mobile awareness efforts.
It’s impossible to overstate the health care crisis in Africa. Over 5.6 million people are stricken with HIV/AIDS in South Africa alone; upwards of 30% of the population in some age groups. Many are unaware that medical care is even available. Perhaps even more heartbreaking, the multi-million dollar efforts to provide antiretroviral drugs are in vain for those without proper instructions and monitoring.
Cell-Life Aftercare, a joint project between the University of Cape Town and Peninsula University of Technology, can remotely monitor 15 to 20 patients per heath care worker, provide supplemental medical information and relay information back to a central database all via mobile technology.
“The single greatest risk [to effective patient monitoring] is the lack of resources to roll out [antiretroviral therapy] effectively,” said Ulrike Rivett, founder of Cell-Life. “The areas with the highest prevalence of HIV have a shortage of skilled medical personnel, lack of good nursing and management staff and have limited financial resources.”
Instant communication combined with an eagle-eye view of disease demographics has already prevented at least one outbreak of typhoid in Uganda. The U.S.-based non-profit Academcy of Educational Development – Satellife developed a program to relay information through networks via personal digital assistants (PDAs). “The outbreak was contained because we could see that something was amiss,” said Holly Ladd, Director of AED-Satellite. “This would not have been possible with paper and pencil reporting, which is much more time-consuming.”
While we are far from stopping the serious health care issues that plague African communities, these early projects seem like an important and promising technological step.
With so many young eyeballs fixated on mobile devices, educators saw a great opportunity to reach kids who have traditionally struggled with formal education. MXIt, a mobile messaging and social networking client, reaches 40% of South Africa’s population according to a company spokesperson, and has teamed up with scores of organizations to provide educational information on everything from mathematics to driving instructions.
For mathematics, MXIt partners with cities and school districts to provide personal tutoring and curricula for use inside and outside of the classroom. For schools, teachers are given established curricula and student performance results to help them tailor future lessons. Outside the classroom, students can get answers to burning math quandaries through direct access to a real-life tutor. They can also refer a struggling friend.
MXit seems pleased enough with the initial results to extend the program. According to materials provided by MXit, a new project partnership with Nokia that began with 260 learners has been expanded to over 3,000 and will soon cover two more South African provinces.
Other educational projects include the aptly-titled “m-novels,” which aims to provide mobile-formatted novels to fiction-hungry teens (as of this writing, only one such book, Kontax, seems to be in circulation).
Finally, for young people striving for a driver’s license, MXit beams instructional videos and driver-knowledge questions to help them ace their test.
Agricultural Education and Equality
For many in the industrialized world, so-called “price dispersion” is a mere inconvenience — we might splurge for a $9 bagel on New York’s 5th Avenue even if we could buy one for 99 cents further downtown. For people in low-income countries, however, price variance across markets can mean one less meal for a entire family.
Fortunately, research finds that cell phone permeation can help smooth out price variation across markets. One study shows that for the fishing industry in sub-Saharan Africa, mobile phone penetration reduces waste, increased profits by 8%, and decreased consumer prices by 4%. “[With a cell phone], I know the price for US$2, rather than traveling [to the market], which costs US$20,” said one grain trader in Zinder, Nigeria to researcher Jenny Aker.
Mobile phones also provide access to global markets and crop-saving weather forecasts in developing areas around the world. Ross Biddiscombe reporting for the Guardian found that:
“…using the Reuters Mobile Light (RML) mobile phone service, one grape grower in Maharashtra state, India, began sending his product to Russia for a higher price after subscribing, while a maize grower received an SMS message about bird flu in West Bengal which would cut his sale price, so he decided to store his produce, selling it for an increased profit when the market improved a few weeks later.”
Pocket-sized technologies are making the age-old uncertainties of agriculture somewhat more manageable for many in Africa and other developing regions. And for those with meager savings to buffer a crisis, it’s little wonder farmers are taking advantage of every opportunity to avoid them.
Cheap and efficient mobile technologies are significantly changing the lives of people in developing areas who are burdened by unequal access to resources and information. Health, education and agriculture are all benefiting from the collective I.Q. of a mobile nation, and cell phones are bridging the gap between isolated African communities and a global market eager for knowledge and talent.