Mobile phone usage explodes in Africa, spurring innovation

February 15, 2014 at 12:29 PM EDT
A drive through Kenya’s bustling capital of Nairobi reveals a nation in love -- with the mobile phone. Across the African continent, improvements in mobile phone technology and greater access to the internet are spurring new innovations in the tech sector. Special correspondent Martin Seemungal reports from Kenya, the East African nation leading the trend.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Drive into Kenya’s capital on any day of the week — to Nairobi’s bustling streets — and witness a nation in love — with the mobile phone.

Virtually everyone has one and if they aren’t talking on it they are texting with it or just holding it.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Where would you be without it?

MAN ON STREET: Without it? My life would definitely come to a stop.


MAN ON STREET: Because, ok, I do a lot of stuff with my phone. Like, it runs my life. I meet my clients, I call them, I text them.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: So it’s important to you?

MAN ON STREET: It’s very important to me.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Mobile phone usage is exploding here, everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, growth of 18 percent every year.  The population in Kenya is 43 million — roughly 30 million have cellphones.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The phone phenomenon in Kenya isn’t just about numbers—it’s about the way people use phones here.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: One recent study revealed some startling statistics — it showed that many Kenyans would sacrifice food and clothing just to recharge their phone credit.

BOB COLLYMO: What we find is you know when inflation is running high and disposable income reduces, people spend just as much on cellphones but would reduce the quantity and quality of the food they eat.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Bob Collymo is the head of Safaricom which has 17 million of Kenya’s 30 million subscribers.

BOB COLLYMO: Here in Kenya and probably in many other Africa countries, the cellphone is a productive tool; it’s not a luxury item.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: It’s gone well beyond talking and texting or SMS as its often called here. Mpesa, Safaricoms mobile payment system is in its 7th year now. It uses simple texting technology and it is the most developed in the world.  People can deposit and withdraw, transfer money to anyone in Kenya.

BOB COLLYMO: You know if you only have 30 shillings and 30 shillings will get you a bus ride back home, actually you’d spend that 30 shillings on buying airtime rather than the bus ride because if you have the 30 shillings as airtime you can then call someone and ask for the money to be sent.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: That is an enormous convenience. Many Kenyans don’t have a bank account, the majority do not have credit cards and they live in rural, remote places where getting to a bank is difficult.

DENIS GIKUNDA: Mobile technology has become ubiquitous. It’s no longer preserve of you know certain people and different socio-economic ladders.

Denis Gikunda is a program manager at Google in Nairobi. Dell and Microsoft are here too — all because of the mobile tech boom.

DENIS GIKUNDA: Everyone has one and because everyone has one it’s transforming how people do many other things beyond just communicate. They started out as just communication tools but they have been used from everything to sending money back to people up country to payments.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: 180 miles north of Nairobi, Catherine Mimona surveys her latest banana crop.  Her phone is always with her because it helps track the fluctuating prices on the markets with an app called M-farm.

CATHERINE MIMONA: I go to the M-farm application and I simply query on the price for bananas. I then await the answer which will give me the price for bananas within Nairobi.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: So it’s really just as simple a matter of punching in the number and asking a question?

CATHERINE MIMONA: Yeah. It’s a matter of efficiency. Really leveraging on technology and that’s the future for this country and the farmers of this country. So, you don’t have to spend all your time and money going to Nairobi to find out what the markets are like. You can get the scenario right where you are.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: It means Catherine Mimona regularly doubles her profits because she doesn’t need to rely as much on the ‘middle-man.’

CATHERINE MIMONA: I’m then able to go to the same M-farm and advertise my commodity — that I’ve got a ton of bananas to sell at 20 shillings per kilo, alright. Simply because I know the expectations of the Nairobi market or the Mombasa market. So, yes it does help me make more money.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: So there is an enormous appetite for apps and the mobile boom is fuelling a whole new generation of young, African, entrepreneurs.

Mobi-Dev is one of many tech start-ups in Kenya specializing in app development.

The team at Mobi-Dev is just about ready to release its latest app, designed to help parents find missing children—essentially a mobile link to data at police stations and children’s homes across the country.

The majority of Kenyans don’t have smartphones so, many of the services and apps are the texting kind low-tech but effective.

One helps people cope with Nairobi’s notorious traffic.

LABAN OKUNE:  You burn a lot of fuel in the traffic. So, combined, all that loss combined is a lot of money to the economy.

Laban Okune was so tired of the traffic he designed a program to try to beat it.  Send a text and you get a traffic report.

LABAN OKUNE:  What our app does; it basically re-routes people from troubled roads to less troubled roads.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: There’s even an app for making a bus ride easier and safer. Catching a bus is usually chaotic and complicated–trying to buy a ticket fraught with difficulty.

BebaPay makes it incredibly easy. The rider buys a BebaPay card before, or after getting on the bus. That card is loaded with money which can last days or even weeks. The conductor then uses a special app in his smartphone to tap the card and charge the fare.

WOMAN ON BUS: It’s convenient because sometimes I have to follow the conductor around for change but with BebaPay it’s just direct.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The idea came from Google’s office in Nairobi.  It is transforming the way bus owners do business. Before it was virtually impossible for them to track what they were making.

DENIS GIKUNDA: Bus owners are able to like get a dash board — seeing in real time how much they are collecting as every tap is made.  We had a case where a bus owner simply downloaded his sales reports for a couple of days — was able to present this to a bank and they were able to see cash flow, like strong evidence of cash flow.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Commuters are benefitting in other ways. Nairobi’s ‘matatus,’those minibus taxis now feature Wi-Fi — free Wi-Fi.

FRANK NDEGE: Yeah, it doesn’t cost me money. It’s very little.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: But it’s worth it?

FRANK NDEGE: Yeah, it is worth it.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Because you get more customers?

FRANK NDEGE: Yeah, yeah.

MAN ON BUS: You know, when you are on Wi-Fi, you most likely to do what you wish to do  and it’s very interesting. You’re chatting with people; you’re doing your serious business on the net.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Technology has even reached some of the poorest slums of Nairobi. This is Gorogocho, home to over a hundred thousand people.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: People here don’t have much. Unemployment is very high and if they do have a job they earn very little, but virtually everyone has one of these.

Inexpensive brands but they are just as connected as everyone else and thanks to one service, lives are being saved here.

Pregnant women in Gorogocho can access an SMS text based service to keep in touch with Grace Anyango, a midwife here. She monitors their progress.

I feel safe and comfortable she says. I can communicate and get these services, especially when I am not feeling well. I know the support is here she says. And Grace uses her own cellphone to tie into a new system monitored 24/7 by a doctor.

DR. PETER MAGUNA:  Now, like here, someone is saying that a mother is bleeding after delivery, immediately, from the umbilical cord. And that baby has just been born. So, my intervention now will be sending a nurse to go there with an ambulance, immediately.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The infant mortality rate in Kenya as a whole and in the slums in particular is among the highest in the world.  This simple texting service is making a difference.

DR. PETER MAGUNA:  We never knew that text messages could actually save lives until we started this. We have saved so many mothers.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:  Saving lives and changing lives. Technology and the mobile phone is having a profound impact on the way people do things in Africa.