Sub-Saharan Africa is open for business. Foreign direct investment across the continent is increasing while GDP rates in many countries are significantly higher than in Europe and the Middle East. “Africa is good for business and business is good for Africa” and nothing represents the economic development and current landscape than the mobile phone.
Outside of the major centres of population, landlines have largely skipped East Africa. One of my first, and resounding memories of East Africa was that of a Masai, dressed in purple and red robes thrown over one shoulder and gathered at the waist, leaning lazily against a small mud and wood hut in the searing heat, chatting on his mobile phone. This juxtaposition of the traditional and the new world came to represent for me development in East Africa.
The cook who worked at the hostel I owned would often grab me as I passed by the kitchen door and, slightly panicked (that doesn’t represent much, she was usually in a state of mild panic if not full-on neurosis), would plead with me
“Dada, school fees are due this month and I don’t have the money. What can I do? Please can you give me my money for next month? I will pay you back”
I would, of course, give her the money but I would also watch as she juggled stirring the slow boiling beans with attempting shout at least 1000 words a minute into her mobile phone. She may have been perpetually broke, but she always had credit. Everyone had credit, or at least, everyone had a phone. At every street corner there was a small stand selling soda, washing powder and mobile phone top-up cards. My hostel manager, a young man who spent his time hanging around the hostel playing football with the guys and charming my female guests, looking for a girlfriend (he got one and left within 6 months, lucky him) spent more than a month’s wages on a mobile phone. That’s the equivalent of you or me spending 2000 Euro on a phone. But, like the perfectly combed ‘afro’ and the tight black jeans, it was all about the “look”.
That’s not to say the mobile phone only represents prestige and development in East Africa. It does not, in fact. Much more than in Ireland (the country with the highest number of mobile phones per capita in Europe), the mobile represents so much more than a handy way to communicate. The rapid and ubiquitous adoption of the mobile phone across sub-Saharan Africa is due to its unique ability to help people living in poorly accessible regions to carry out business. It is used by the fisherman to gain information on market prices, it is used by the consumer to order goods and save themselves a long trip by foot or on unreliable local transport to the market, it is used by the farmer to purchase insurance to protect himself from crop failure.
While the lonely, almost comical, figure of the phone booth stands as a quaint reminder of how far we have come in Ireland in just a few short years, its near absence across sub-Saharan Africa is an invisible testament to an land ready to forge its own way and define its own development.
“Africa is good for business and business is good for Africa” is taken from “The New Africa” report by Business Action for Africa