How Mobile helps to overcome the Digital Divide

In recent years, the spread of mobile communications has enabled more and more people to access Internet and more generally to communicate more effectively. For those who live in industrialized countries or in large cities, the lack of access to telecommunications is a difficult concept to imagine and understand, but there are vast areas, even in Western countries, where telephony and connectivity are poorly available and only the emergence of mobile has allowed the creation of a telecommunications network and the overcoming of the so-called digital divide.

Only in the United States, for example, 10% of residents, especially low-income individuals and people in rural areas, are not reached by fixed broadband – which is now considered to all intents and purposes an utility – and get online through their smartphones and the 4G network. In a country like USA the problem can be seen as probably intended to be solved in a few years, but in poor countries the issue shows us a different scenario.

In developing countries entire areas are, in fact, skipping the building of landlines and going straight to mobile, and the reason is quite simple: fixed telephony infrastructure costs are much higher than those of mobile communication and in many countries investments are focusing directly on the latter. Mobile carrier industry alliance GSMA estimates globally that only 2% of African houses have a landline and at the same time a Recent Pew Research Center report shows that cell phones are as common in Nigeria and South Africa as they are in the USA, with about 90% of adults owning mobile phones.

It is a relatively large number of devices, since in countries like Kenya the minimum wage is a few dollars a day. Why? Because mobile phones are emerging as a tool to help Africans to earn money and access to some services. For example, some fishermans with no means to keep the fish fresh can be contacted by their customers, know whether on a given day there is demand for fish and, if not, to engage in other activities.  With mobile phones African farmers can communicate easily with wholesale brokers, buyers, seed suppliers and improve their small businesses.

mobile banking in Africa

Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

A very important role that mobile phones have in improving the daily lives of Africans is the ability to manage a bank account, send and receive money via cell phone. This is not a secondary issue: in almost all African villages the nearest bank is far away tens if not hundreds of kilometers and keeping money at home raises the risk of theft and robbery. Even when banks are close, the cost of the services they offer is often too high for the majority of Africans. The mobile-banking services are accessible from anywhere via any phone and have extremely low costs. These factors have provided the industry a huge growth in recent years. In Kenya, for example, the mobile-banking service M-Pesa, only in 2013, has allowed over 237 million person-to-person transactions. According to Pew, 61% of Kenyans with mobile phones reported making or receiving payments on their phones in the past year, as did 42% of Ugandans and 39 percent of Tanzanians.

Many of them are still using basic phones, with simple calling and SMS functions and basic Internet browsing, but it is undeniable that the current trend is to bring communications and internet access also, above all and, in some countries, through only the mobile infrastructure, with phones and smartphones representing an increasingly popular option for overcoming the digital divide.