Monday, October 27, 2008

The mobile phone is the computer for Africa

by Karen Coppock

During a break-out session in the MobileActive08 conference in Johannesburg last week, a participant from Uganda asserted that the mobile phone is the computer for Africa. This proposition was heavily debated amongst the group, with some voting in favor of the computer (argument: have you ever tried to work on a spreadsheet or edit a Word document on a mobile phone? The screen is simply too small to be one’s only computing device) and others voting in favor of the mobile phone (argument: affordability, ubiquity, ease of usage, etc.).

One concern with computers was the requirement for literacy. Yet someone in the group mentioned that literacy is also an issue for mobile phones as SMS messages are so much more affordable than voice calls and many of the MobileActive08 projects revolved around SMS text messages. A very sharp participant from Zambia mentioned that there is an old tradition of letter writers – people who used to write letters for people who were not literate. She said that there is evidence that this trend could be translated to the mobile phone environment with the emergence of SMS writers or people that will send/read a text message for someone if they are not literate (either reading/writing literate or technically literate).

Regardless of its shortcomings, the general agreement in the small group was that the mobile phone may very well be the only computing device that millions of Africans ever experience first-hand. There is an opportunity, therefore, to develop tools that enable the mobile phone to become easier to use as a computer (i.e., docking stations for mobile phones with connections to a monitor, keyboard, external speakers and/or a mouse) …thus far the CellC and Vodacom mobile phone booths across South Africa have not exploited this opportunity, but perhaps that is the next step in the technology’s evolution in Africa.

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