Mobile phones have taken off in Africa, but few had believed that there would be a major market. In the late 1990s MTN first considered finding subscribers in Nigeria, there estimates were low but in the last ten years they have spread across the continent. I have collected three of their sim cards.
By 2007 there were 30 million Nigerian mobile phone subscribers, and this is set to increase exponentially; in 2011 it will reach 52 million. Meanwhile between 1999 and 2004, the number of mobile users in Africa grew ten times, reaching 76.8 million.
The growth of Rwanda’s telecommunication is the first exciting development and from the conversation I had with one young entrepreneur, it seems this is only the first.
Rwanda is going beyond mobile phone technology and pioneering the development of fibre-optics; promising the internet.
This has got people around the world talking.
The opportunities gleaned from these technologies are endless, from free satellite conversations to anywhere, the opportunities for big business to operate on international markets and a revolution right down to the remote agriculturalist.
Technology also symbolises Africa’s purchasing power and its emergence as a major market. Perhaps most importantly it promises to strengthen democracy and protect Africa’s people.
In his book Africa: Altered states, Ordinary Miracles, Richard Dowden asked the question, ‘Could the Rwandan Genocide have happened if there had been mobile phones?’
Some might argue that with mobile technology people would have understood the extent and nature of the cataclysm better and acted faster.
However, it is possible to retort that international bureaucrats knew the situation anyway and others state that mobile phones could have helped to spread hate propaganda.
However, there are already circumstances in which internet and mobile phones have exposed repression and conflict.
The ethnic violence in Kenya in December 2007 was well understood and broadcast to the international community, on this occasion international pressure helped to cease the violence.
Technology has also shown the opportunity to strengthen democracy. In the Zimbabwean elections of 2008, the actual election results were published and the speed of information transfer exposed their loss, before they had chance to manipulate and subvert them.
Meanwhile, leading up to the Iranian elections this year, the Iranian government banned social networking sites for their people, in an attempt to try and prevent any influence on voters and the outflow of information on the fraudulence and violence which marred the election.
Dowden reflects in the book about the changes in his career as a journalist working in Africa. He recalls the difficulties of reporting without any communications infrastructure, he might have had to travel a day to reach somewhere with a functioning internet connection.
Seated here in a home in London I can phone, email or talk on social networking sites to friends in Rwanda, Uganda … Ghana. The obscurity which has occasionally blighted Africa is disappearing.
The implications of this new form of globalisation can be saved for another time; but for now people can celebrate the security which communications offer for people around the world.
The author lives in the United Kingdom and is a friend of Rwanda