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Africa's mobile revolution

Vodafone sales consultant ahmed souleymane mans his post in tamale.
Mobile phone stands like this one pepper cities and towns throughout Africa, where over 50 per cent of the population is expected to own a cellphone by 2012. Photo by Antoinette Sarpong.  

By Antoinette Sarpong

I’m wedged between a rather sweaty man and the greasy window of a bus heading from Tamale to Nalerigu in northern Ghana. I’m going to research a story and traveling in Ghana’s Northern region is more arduous than I thought. The rural areas of Ghana are remarkable. You can gorge on visual candy. We inch closer to the Burkina border. A mosque whizzes by, followed by a cluster of mud huts.  A girl carrying a pail of water on her head crosses the path of a woman with a baby strapped to her back. This too is familiar, but the cellphone the woman pulled out her small plastic sack is definitely not.  

Even here, in remote villages, I’ve seen several people toting mobile phones. Mobile moguls MTN and Vodafone are mark their territory with brightly-painted shop stalls. Something is happening here. Mobile technology isn’t just an urban luxury or some Western fad. Africa isn’t generally associated with technological advancement, but Africans are defying stereotypes. They’re embracing mobiles and closing the gap between all Africans with new lines of communication.

On my recent visit to Togo, I saw the same trend. In the capital, Lome, there was no shortage of vendors hawking currency and mobile credit on every corner. It was the same story back in Tamale, once I made the long journey back to Ghana’s northern transport hub. After getting a good night’s sleep, I ventured out onto the streets around the central market the next morning. It was there that I met 29-year-old Ahmed Souleymane working at a Vodafone kiosk. It was one of several on the same street.

I asked Souleymane for a 5 cedi credit voucher ($3.76 CAD) and a question about Tamale’s technological turn. “Do you have a lot of customers here?”

“Oh yes,” answered Souleymane. “We have plenty customers.”

Now that mobile phones can be manufactured rather inexpensively, they’ve become much more accessible to the average African. In 2008, the total African mobile subscriber base was roughly 280.7 million people, or 30 per cent of the entire population. In 2012, the total subscriber base is expected to reach 561 million, which is about 53.5 per cent of the entire continent, according to African Telecoms News.

It’s a far cry from my last visit to Africa in 2000, when I sat on a cold bench in a dimly-lit call centre in Burkina Faso. It had the personality of a bunker, but it also had one of the few operational land lines in the village where I was living.

Now with telecom heavyweights Tigo, Zain and the soon to be launched Glo Mobile creating more competition in Ghana’s mobile market, it’s not uncommon to see people using their mobile to check Facebook, their bank account or the price of plantains in a nearby town.

Mobile phones are also playing an important role in citizen journalism. Since 2007, The Voices of Africa Media Foundation has trained over 30 mobile reporters in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania to use their mobile phones to report on issues in their communities. The mobile movement shows no sign of slowing down, I thought, as I watched another patron picked up some credit at Souleymane’s booth.

“Why do you think mobile phones are so popular now?” I asked.

“If we travel and want to meet someone in Gambaga, or Kumasi or Accra, said Souleymane, we don’t need to write them a letter anymore. It’s better to call them,” he continues, with a boyish grin. “It’s easy.” 

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Africa Without Maps

  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

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