Having arrived in Dodoma and having not made the journey in about four years, it was great this year to be able to track my route using Google Maps. From Nairobi to Arusha and then Arusha to Dodoma are two long coach journeys, about eight hours each. We pass through some of the most interesting places on earth – very near the cradle of humanity – The Olduvai Gorge, where the oldest hominid skulls have been discovered, dating back 1.8 million years. Having Google Maps and Wikipedia to hand during the coach journey made it a fascinating journey. Mobile technology has certainly transformed the lives of many people in Africa, with phones more widely distributed than computers, and more people having mobiles than bank accounts. With the advent of the smart phone – even at the most basic level of capability, it is clear that having a phone now means more than just making phone calls or texting. I often point out to the students they carry around more processing power in their pocket than the Apollo Spacecraft.
In reading up about how the mobile or cell phone has super-charged development I was very interested to find out that a Manchester based academic, Richard Heeks, Director of the Center for Development Informatics in Manchester, has done a lot of research on this and has identified some ways in which mobile technology is changing the lives off even the poorest communities. Firstly he identifies its ability to connect the excluded. It has already been noted how Kenyas M-Pesa is changing the way people save money , spend money and move money around. Circumventing the rather laborious process of setting up a bank account by transferring credit via phones – now it is easy to see the fruits of saving money, investing money, rather than the precarious way of living from hand to mouth etc. In India, A Little World, has invented a way of using a finger print scanner and mobile phone to set up bank accounts, they now how over 3 million users. Employees can now even cycle out to the most remote villages and set up ‘shop’ under a tree – allowing the most basic saving and investments in things such as fertilizer etc. Farmers can check competing prices in various local markets before making the decision of where to sell their goods… in fact an app developed here in Uganda, Farmers Friend, has been invented with that very purpose in mind. I have a fond memory of a cotton farmer in Rural India, sitting on his cart and bullock whilst pointing out to me his dual sim card phone, so he could have a business line and a private line. At once four hundred years behind UK farming technology, and more advanced mobile technology ( I hadn’t come across dual-sim phones in Britain then).
Another thing that phones allow that the middle man can be cut out or at least be kept tabs on. Their are innovative ways all over the world sprouting up to report and log instances of local corruption, the Bhoomi project in Karnataka, India is a great example of this, stopping corrupt officials from demanding a bribe before they offer land registration certificates (which farmers need to get a loan). Thirdly crowdsourcing – I love the app I heard about in Nairobi, Ushahidi, testimony in Swahili, which was developed after the terrible violence in the Kenyan elections of 2008. Text messages allowed them to map report about violence, and now it used to map natural disasters, or in Ghana mpedigree uses it to map where drugs are running out.
One of the things I love about East Africa is how resourceful everyone is, they don’t expect to rely on hand outs, so there is this incredible network of tiny businesses, and the mobile phone has unlocked this great entrepreneurship.