Cell Phones in Africa: A Limiting Progression

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.

Here’s a statement to shock most: according to the IPS news webpage, about 85% of people in Africa own a cell phone with wireless coverage while 3% of that population does not have access to sanitation facilities. Here’s another one: according to IPS, only 20 percent of Kenya’s population of over 30 million has access to electricity. These figures, along with similar data provided, have provoked serious thought and discussion among myself and others over these testaments to, what seems to be, a digression in progress for these Third World countries.

According to the North American perspective, the average citizen finds that proper sanitation is by far one of the highest ranked in terms of necessities, with the likes of food and shelter in order to live. Knowing that most people in Africa prefer to use a cell phone instead of a toilet is saddening.

Being a former citizen of such a country (Kenya, to be precise), the notion of this imbalance in amenities makes it all the more disconcerting since I have a first-person perspective of the poverty that plagues, and eventually kills, the majority of people in this nation. Others would say that the introduction of such a revolutionary piece of technology is definitely beneficial to the economy. But to what end? Without basic facilities provided to the average person, how much progress can there possibly be? While there are differing opinions present on this issue, I did not think that I would find an opinion that would clash spectacularly with mine; especially when this opinion originated from a person who is, quite literally, closer to home.

My father, giving his first-hand account of the changes in Kenyan society after traveling to this country recently, had me thinking long and hard about his take on the statistics given to him. Not only did it challenge the opinions I held on this issue, it also challenged other ideas that I have held strongly over related issues. In this discussion with him I learned that Africans creatively use cell phones for more than just small talk. The natives with access to wireless coverage have taken the cell phone as we know it (primarily being a communication device) and have transformed it into a banking system and an important business tool for farmers and vendors. The introduction of the cell phone has seen a ten-fold increase of productivity, since they allow farmers to transfer money without having to walk for kilometers on end to do so. Furthermore, cell phone has become a major source of income for most small businesses (vegetable and kiosk vendors) since most of their orders now arrive via the cell phone. Even the turn-boys (children who work on buses and trains) handle transactions, receive payments, pay debts and even transfer music with this device. Needless to say, this piece of technology has boosted numerous economies and has simply become an inherent part of life in African society.

After learning about this, I did not feel sad or angry, but rather, I felt that it brought new hope to this “doomed” continent. With the little that these people were given, they took this contraption and created new uses for it that First World economists would never even fathom. Looking on the flip side of this coin, while there has been progress, there is still a limit to the continent’s growth as a whole. While the efficiency of conducting business has increased dramatically, productivity of people has yet to increase.

Unfortunately, the African people haven’t had enough of an education to realize that health is directly related to poverty. 80% of the diseases that claim many lives are preventable and treatable. In fact, many of these complications arise from unsanitary living conditions. It is the responsibility of the government to educate its people on sanitary practices and install such facilities.

However, as much as the developed world has done for this continent, the real underlying issue has yet to be addressed. So far, the success of the cell phone has been measured by the change in the average man’s quality of life. On the other hand, the measure of a nation’s development is taken by assessing the country as a whole. The key word here is “whole.” While there has been change in the lives of many people, the attitudes still prevalent in the minds of the people have not changed. While the rest of the world struggles to help them, they refuse to help themselves. Successful families migrate outside the country instead of supporting their own community. For instance, why not install wells and sanitation facilities as a business enterprise? Obviously the need for such a product is there and so is the potential workforce to provide it. In addition to this simple idea, related adventures such as manufacturing and maintenance are within reach. Then why is there no move towards this change? The sad but truthful answer is that collective outlook of the people on this continent. They only act if it benefits one person or one family. They can’t look beyond to see the benefits of change for their community or nation as a whole. The only way to change this is to educate. Instead of handing the help over into their waiting hands, help them learn to help themselves.

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