In the slums of Nairobi, many people say they are willing to skip a meal to afford a mobile phone.
"A mobile phone helps them to optimize their lives in the long term through better access to information and resources, including food," said Gabrielle Gauthey, executive vice president of global telecommunications company Alcatel Lucent. "Access to information has become as vital as water and electricity."
That need for information, coupled with Africa's rapid urbanization, is driving dramatic changes in the way people share and consume information in Africa, according to a new report from the Center for International Media Assistance, which quoted Gauthey.
Cell phones and other mobile devices, already widespread, are becoming a nearly universal platform. Cell phone penetration in some African cities already exceeds 100 percent.
“In 2000, you had about five million mobile phones in Africa. Today, we have about 500 million," Gauthey said. "In 2015, we expect it to be 800 million. Already, 20 to 30 percent of these phones are Internet enabled. In 2015, it will be 80 percent.”
Guy Berger, UNESCO’s director of freedom of expression and media development and leader of the South African National Editors Forum, predicted that mobile devices will surpass broadcast receivers as the continent's primary medium.
The shift from radio and television to mobile telephones and other mobile devices is creating new challenges and opportunities for media outlets. Traditional international broadcasters -- such as Voice of America, BBC, Al Jazeera, China’s CCTV and South Africa’s SABC -- are launching new services with entirely different programming. VOA launched a new journalism program in Africa, with a hundred trained citizen journalists filing reports from the Congo and creating new centers of conversation on social media sites.
“We are approaching people in an entirely different way,” says Gwendolyn F. Dillard, director of VOA’s Africa Division. The old way in Africa was communal. “People defined themselves in groups so you broadcast to groups.” Now, she says, Africans increasingly define themselves as individuals. So you broadcast to an individual “with a mobile device in a pocket or handbag.”
The growth in mobile has created new opportunities for independent media, as well, including new providers of news, information, education, healthcare and entertainment. It also creates new ways for citizens to monitor and petition their governments, and for governments to reach citizens.
A few examples highlighted in the report:
Hatari lets Kenyans report bribes and corruption by email, text, or tweet.
M-Maji provides real-time information to urban slum dwellers about clean water–prices, suppliers, and availability–all on cellphones.
- Mimiboard is a mobile phone-based notice board service that won the most votes at this year’s Open Innovation Africa Summit.
Veteran journalism educator and media executive Adam Clayton Powell III authored the report, “Bigger Cities, Smaller Screens: Urbanization, Mobile Phones, and Digital Media Trends in Africa.”
You can read the full report here (pdf).
Photo courtesy of Ken Banks, kiwanja.net.