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Ultra-Low-Cost Handsets and the African Future
Alex Steffen, 15 Apr 06

NextBillion has a great overview of recent pieces exploring the implications of cheap handhelds in developing countries. Ultra-low-cost handsets are expected to pass 36 million in 2007. This has also had the effect of driving down prices for competing options, like refurbished phones, lowering the overall cost of access for those in the developing world.

We've explored the implications of mobile phones on leapfrogging economies quite frequently, and also talked about how these technologies are changing as they hit the street in Africa, but this BBC story does a great job of painting the impacts on the street:

Everyone seems to have a mobile phone. Many have two or three, each tuned to a different network... In any big town you just have to look around and there will be a boy within hailing distance ready to sell you a top-up card. Girls are less likely to be scampering about in traffic jams with strings of cards. But give them a picnic table, a red, yellow or green umbrella, and a "make your calls here" sign, and they are set up in the telecommunications business.

As Ethan notes, the speed with which Africans are embracing mobiles (and the Net) has implications for the entire world:

[W]e very rarely hear Africans talk about what problems they think are most important. Citizens’ media changes that. The folks starting blogs and writing about their experience in Africa aren’t starving - they’re getting by, and in many cases, thriving. Their experience isn’t every African’s experience by a long shot… but it’s compelling evidence that Africa isn’t the basket case it sometimes seems to be in the Northern media. Read the bloggers who contribute to BlogAfrica and Global Voices and you’ll see people who are tackling challenges head on, starting businesses, exposing corruption, pursuing higher education and finding solutions to the problems the continent faces. I challenge you to read African blogs for a week and not come away with a renewed sense of hope for the continent.

And that is likely to really shake things up -- not only for the reasons Ethan cites (that we will all be hearing a lot more from smart, interesting people from places whose existance we rarely stop to consider; or that, knowing more, we may get more involved, perhaps even do our bit, to help trigger the African Renaissance people have begun to murmur about), but because I think that many of us in the Global North have been comfortable to imagine that most of world is like us and thinks like us and wants the same things we do. That mindset is a sort of Potemkin village, allowing us to remain in denial of the degree to which the world needs to change and how far we lag behind the times.

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Alex - did you mean the first link to point here?

If so - thanks for the shout-out.


Posted by: Rob on 17 Apr 06

Thx Alex Steffen for continuously reminding us of the entrepreneurial and inventive spirit of African communities. They're much less parochial than many of us. They're super fast when it comes to adopting new technologies and turning them to their advantage (the mobile phone is just one example).
As the classic observation goes: throw African kids two pieces of wood and a few nails and they make a bicycle to travel the continent; throw them to Eurokids and they build a square box in which to stuff their possessions. ;-)

There's an interesting academic group at the Univ of Amsterdam studying the way in which new media and technologies are being used in very creative ways in Africa, how they're being used to create a cultural and social sphere which we can learn a lot from:

Posted by: Lorenzo on 17 Apr 06



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