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The mobile phone comes first in Africa; before electricity, water, toilets or even food | MG Africa 9/15/17, 00)18

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The mobile phone comes first in Africa; before electricity, water,


toilets or even food
03 Mar 2015 17:10Christine Mungai

In 16 African countries, mobile phone networks are near-universally available; the poor would rather skip
a meal than be short of airtime

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The mobile phone comes first in Africa; before electricity, water, toilets or even food | MG Africa 9/15/17, 00)18

The mobile phone changed photography with the selfie. (Photo Wayan Vota/USAID Digital
Development Forum/flickr). BELOW the typical phone charging you will find in many in
African towns and cities. (Photo Carsten ten Brink/flickr).

SPEAKING at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Monday, Claudio Chiche, chief commercial
officer of Mozambique carrier Mcel, told European telecommunications carriers seeking a slice of the
billions of dollars that will flow to companies that build mobile-payment systems, to look to Africa for
help.

What does Chiche know that others might not? Well, this is the extent of the mobile revolution in
Africa: Mobiles are more important than flushing toilets, poor people would rather go without food than
be short of airtime, and mobile phones are the great equaliser used to blur social boundaries.

A new working paper from the pan-African think-tank Afrobarometer examines the availability of five
types of infrastructure mobile phone coverage, electricity, piped water, roads and sewerage services in
rural and urban Africa. The data reveals that mobile phone coverage is the most widely available
infrastructure across the continent.

Across the 33 examined countries, between 70% and 100% of respondents reside in areas with mobile
phone coverage.

In fact, in 16 countries, mobile phone networks are either universally or near- universally available, and
only four countries have service availability under 80%: Madagascar, Guinea, Liberia, and Tanzania.

This suggests that mobile phone connectivity is possible in the overwhelming majority of Africa, even if
actual household-level ownership or access rates may be lower. Without electricity at home, mobile phone
users typically charge their phones using solar, car battery, or at a central charging station in town.

But sewerage services are the least available infrastructure in Africa. On average, less than three in 10
respondents live in areas with sewerage services.

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The mobile phone comes first in Africa; before electricity, water, toilets or even food | MG Africa 9/15/17, 00)18

Only seven countries have coverage rates exceeding 50%: Algeria (84%), Cameroon (69%), Tunisia
(68%), Morocco (64%), South Africa (64%), Egypt (63%), and Ghana (51%).

Sewerage service availability was 10% or less in five countries, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Mozambique,
Niger, and Tanzania.

Mobile network coverage precedes


other types of infrastructure in Africa
Cell service Electricity Piped water Road Sewerage

Algeria

Benin

Botswana

Burkina Faso

Burundi

Cameroon

Cape Verde

Cote d'Ivoire

Egypt

Ghana

Guinea

Kenya

Lesotho

Liberia
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The mobile phone comes first in Africa; before electricity, water, toilets or even food | MG Africa 9/15/17, 00)18

Liberia

Madagascar

Malawi

Mali

Mauritius

Morocco

Mozambique

Namibia

Niger

Nigeria

Senegal

Sierra Leone

| Create infographics

Large urban-rural disparities also exist within countries. Zimbabwe demonstrates the greatest disparity
between urban and rural coverage rates (92% vs. 7%), followed by Tunisia, Botswana, Morocco, and
South Africa.

Rural respondents in six countries had no sewerage service at all, and they include rich Africa:
Botswana and Cape Verde are among them, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Niger, and Senegal.

Rural sewerage coverage levels were less than 1% in three other African countries: Kenya (0.5%), Malawi
(0.4%), and Tanzania (0.8%).

The availability of electricity, piped water and roads occupy a more intermediate position.

Its mobile first

There seems to be a loose hierarchy of infrastructure rollout, and mobile phone services are typically
connected first in all countries surveyed. After this, the next to arrive is electricity and piped water, though
the sequence in which they are connected varies. Still, when one arrives, so does the other not long after.

The survey found that respondents typically had mobile phone coverage, electricity and piped water
before a road was built, and last to arrive was sewerage services.

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The mobile phone comes first in Africa; before electricity, water, toilets or even food | MG Africa 9/15/17, 00)18

The exception is Tanzania, where roads were built before electricity or water connected. Tanzania is in
the middle of a ten year integrated roads programme, which is designed to upgrade 70% of the countrys
10,300km of main roads and build some 3,000km of new roads.

As a result, Tanzanias road networks are now better developed and maintained than most of its
neighbours.

It makes sense that a government would build a road only after something was already happening in a
particular area, otherwise we would have many roads to nowhere.That something trade, investment, and
so on is made easier by a road network, but can happen in the absence of it.

But what is remarkable is that mobile phone coverage would be universal, even when other basic
infrastructure can be so scanty.

It suggests that mobile phones in Africa are not seen as a tool of leisure just for telling stories.

In fact, most Kenyas poor would rather go hungry and walk to work than be short of airtime, according to
a 2013 study commissioned by the World Bank.

The study found that seven out of 10 poor people would rather cut back food expenses to spare money for
airtime, says this story by the Business Daily , in the hope that having an operational phone could help
them earn some money.

With most being casual labourers with an unpredictable income stream, they need to be reachable in case
someone calls them with a job.

A similar study in Langa township, South Africa, found that poor residents went a step further: they were
willing to spend a great deal of money to buy a fancy expensive phone.

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The mobile phone comes first in Africa; before electricity, water, toilets or even food | MG Africa 9/15/17, 00)18

The researcher documented township residents who had bought expensive phones such as Samsung
Galaxies, but they were perpetually short of airtime, and so although the phone was smart, it was not
particularly useful the owner could not actually call, text or browse.

An end in itself

Having sufficient airtime and access to electricity to charge phonesfor some residents, seemed
secondary to actually owning a phone, researcher Crystal Powell writes.

Powell says that this suggests the mobile phone, was not a means to an end, it was an end in itself, the
study said, a device used to mitigate the social exclusion the township residents have to live with every
day.

For residents of Langa, mobile phones are the great equaliser, sending subliminal messages to more
affluent, mainstream Cape Towners: I may live in a shack or the township, I may not have a car or a
house as nice as yours but I do have a nice phone (I might even have the same phone as you!)

The mobile phone could thus be said to distinguish those who live from those who merely survive in
Langa according to Powell, those who live versus those who really live, meaning they live to the
fullest, which often means splurging money on expensive mobile phones.

Read more from Christine Mungai

Twitter: chris_mungai

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