Smartphones to revolutionize the African marketplace

The unexpected continent that just might be the next big economy

The smartphone is a luxury.  While it may be nice to have one, it’s hardly something that you need to survive—if you live in the year 2005.  But today, the smartphone isn’t much more of a luxury than basic internet access.

The smartphone has many applications: email, texting, music, online banking, home security, social networking, news feeds and cat videos. All of this is in your pocket, in your hands, at the tips of your fingers.  And while we might look upon our evident smartphone dependency with embarrassment and denial, this portable piece of technology has certainly opened up many doors.  The smartphone invites new and innovative ways of doing daily tasks. It is a tool that encourages discovery.  This is particularly true in Africa.  With an expanding market and a growing middle class, Africa is ripe for a mobile revolution.

Development and Technology in Africa

Being relatively underdeveloped when compared with many nations in Asia, Europe or the Americas, Africa is a place where rapid market growth is still possible on a scale that is unimaginable in much of the rest of the world.  An article in The Economist refers to Africa as “the next frontier,” while a recent piece on CNN identifies Africa’s middle class as “a demographic that has been touted as the world’s fastest growing.”  Into this rapidly developing market, enter mobile technology.

International Data Corporation (IDC) has reported that the smartphone market in Africa is expected to double by 2017 – a level of growth that is unfathomable in much of the rest of the world.  One of the reasons for this rapid growth is the fact that phones are very cheap in Africa.  An article in The Guardian places the cost of a smartphone in Africa at approximately 50 dollars.  Take a market with lots of growth potential, a rising middle class and cheap, widely available mobile phones—put these things together and suddenly you have a perfect storm.  The conditions are right for never-before-seen levels of mobile-driven development in Africa.

‘White-spaces’ and web browsing

Taking note of the continent’s economic potential, big-name corporations have been looking to increase their presence in the African market.  Software giant Microsoft recently launched the 4Afrika Initiative, a long-term project that will work toward making the continent more globally competitive.  Many of the projects being undertaken through 4Afrika are driven by mobile technology.  For instance, the ‘White Spaces Project’ aims to increase the availability of high speed internet access across Kenya, even in regions which are without electricity.  Working with Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Indigo Telecom Ltd. (an Internet Service Provider), Microsoft hopes for the White Spaces Project to expand broadband coverage using solar power and ‘white spaces’ (unused TV broadcast frequencies).

In undertaking projects of this sort, mobile technology will necessarily play a huge role.  Because electricity is only sporadically available in many regions, the internet is accessed largely through mobile devices, which can be carried around and charged in different locations.  According to a report by Ericsson Mobility, “70 percent of mobile users in the countries researched in the region browse the web on their devices, in comparison to 6 percent who use desktop computers.” This finding shows that Africa’s current technological development is following a very different pattern from the rest of the world; whereas we in the developed world have come to see electricity as a base on top of which all technology rests, many parts of Africa are seeing internet access and mobile technology coming before widespread access to electricity.  The bid to bring internet access to such areas is but one example of the exciting, parallel path to development that Africa is taking.

Political Implications: Mobile-Driven Mobilization

The increased use of mobile technology, coupled with more broadly available internet access, can have very real political consequences— some positive, others dangerous.  In a paper entitled “Technology and Collective Action: The Effect of Cell Phone Coverage on Political Violence in Africa,” Jan Pierskalla and Florian Hollenbach propose that the more readily available cell phones are, the easier it is for people to coordinate and mobilize themselves.  The data suggests that there is a greater likelihood of violent collective action taking place in areas with strong cell phone coverage.  Some of the examples that the study cites are Algeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe.  

To this data (dating from 2007-2008) can be added the more recent uprisings of the Arab Spring, in which the use of mobile technology is purported to have played a significant role.  In Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring, Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain write that “mobile phones were the key mediating instrument bridging communication gaps: they could be easily carried and concealed, could often be used to record and upload photos and videos, and could be recharged in the street.”

Will we see similar revolutions taking place across sub-Saharan Africa as cell phone coverage increases?  It’s undeniable that cell phones are valuable mobilizing tools.  However, the political effect of cell phone access will most likely vary from case to case, from country to country.

Mobile ‘Revolution’?

In spite of the commercial and political potentials of mobile proliferation in Africa, one must be careful not to jump to conclusions about the power of this technology.  Wilson Prichard is a professor at the University of Toronto. Working in both the Department of Political Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs, Prichard’s research lies in the field of international development, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. Since first travelling to Africa in the early 2000s, he has witnessed the rise of mobile technology on the continent from near-nonexistence. “The penetration of technology is remarkable,” says Prichard. This rapid rise of mobile technology has permeated a wide range of African industries, influencing agricultural practices and commerce alike.

Certainly, mobile technology is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in Africa. For Professor Prichard, the bigger question is not how many Africans have mobile phones, but rather: “How could this technology be transformative?”  When it comes to development, Prichard emphasizes that “the cell phone is a tiny piece of the puzzle” and it is important to “be aware of the potential to overstate” the importance of mobile technology. “The phone is not going to solve all of your problems,” says Prichard, “[but] it does open a horizon that was closed before.” We must not see phones as catalysts for instant revolutionary change, but rather as tools which confer “incremental benefits and certain new opportunities.”

Revolutionary tool or not, Prichard observes that “cell phones are out there; they are spreading.”  While it may be difficult to predict exactly what the impact of increased cell phone use in Africa will be, the rise of mobile technology is certain to bring about significant changes on the continent.  As we have seen, some of these changes are already occurring.

The ‘Mobile-Only Continent’

The rise of mobile technology in Africa has become the subject of a TED talk.   Toby Shapshak is the publisher and editor of Stuff, a technology magazine based out of South Africa.  In his TED talk entitled “You Don’t Need an App for That” Shapshak calls Africa a “mobile-only” continent, and refers to development on the continent as “[innovation] in its purest form – innovation out of necessity,”  says Shapshank.  “People are solving real problems in Africa.  Why?  Because we have to; because we have real problems.”

I began this piece by talking about the reasons why smartphones are amazing.  Rather than singing the praises of the smartphone, Shapshak talks about innovations in Africa which have been pioneered using simpler feature phones.  He cites M-PESA as an example: it is a payment system which “works on every single phone possible, because it uses SMS.”  Shapshak calls feature phones “the smartphones of Africa.”  In our arrogance, many of us in the developed world see feature phones as objects of ridicule; in Africa, these phones are tools for technological innovation.  Perhaps this attitude makes all the difference – the mobile revolution in Africa appears to be taking off because all possible avenues are being explored, and all available tools are being put to use in order to do that exploring.

Shapshak ends his talk with a dig at the developed world: “You hear the west talk about innovation at the edge – well of course it’s happening at the edge, because in the middle everybody’s updating Facebook.”  According to Shapshak, we should be looking to Africa for new, cutting-edge developments in technology.  It’s not just that Africa is developing – maybe the continent is pointing the way to the future for the rest of the world.  Microsoft’s 4Afrika campaign puts it well: “technology can accelerate growth for Africa, and Africa can also accelerate technology for the world.”


There have been numerous predictions regarding the future of mobile technology in Africa: an article by Jon Evans on predicts that “in 3.5 years, most Africans will have smartphones.”  World Future Society suggests that smartphones will be the cause of political reform in Africa, in a report entitled 20 Forecasts for 2014-2030.  As mentioned earlier, International Data Corporation expects the smartphone market to double in Africa by 2017.  I will venture to say only that the coming decade will see massive changes in Africa – many of them driven by mobile technology.

The spread of mobile technology increases communication and access to information.  This growing connectivity can have very real political, economic and social implications for Africa.  At the same time, the unique ways in which mobile technology is being harnessed in Africa could make the continent a technological leader as we move into the future.

Africa has adopted a very unique path to development – one which breaks with development patterns in the rest of the world.  As a result, it’s hard to predict the path that development will take on the continent.  This uncertainty makes Africa’s unprecedented journey of development all the more exciting.

Forecasted start year: 
2020 to 2025


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