Next mobile drive

This is a repost of a Channel Post MEA interview with me by Davis Weddi:

Mobile phone ownership across Africa is rocketing, what does this exactly mean for vendors and resellers?
What we know for sure is that mobile subscriptions are rocketing – a qualified guess is that subscriber numbers and handset ownership has increased too. But ownership data and statistics is not as accessible, and much more complex to gather, than subscription data given by the operators. That said, available data from customs, shipments etc., all point in one direction – mobile ownership is quickly rising as well. So, with an ever-increasing need of handsets and other mobile devices, there is a great opportunity for vendors and resellers to make a good profit. That is if they can identify the best products for the existing markets and niche segments within, i.e. address the customer need. At the moment there is a craving for affordable smartphones. More advanced phones also require more skills and a renewed need of reliable maintenance and repair shops.


Genuine Nokia TV Mobile? Photo: Johan Hellström

What types of mobile phones are the Africans buying most?
Basic mobile phones still dominate the market but according to market reports and media, Africa is one of the world’s fastest-growing smartphone markets. Smartphone shipments into Africa verify this. And it’s a mix of phones that are sold and bought. From the high end ones like Apple iPhone, Samsung Galaxy and Sony Xperia, to second hand Nokia’s and cheap Chinese brands. There is a clear rise in demand for so called grey-market smartphones that run older versions of Android on cheap, generic hardware.

What are the trends from a research point of view about what is driving mobile phone ownership in Africa?
There are many reasons to the exponential growth in the mobile industry. Historically its been explained by the deregulation of the telecommunication markets. Historic and on-going technology advancement is further leading to decreased costs for underlying technology as well as handsets, making it more affordable for the end user. The want factor is a driver too. People see others with phones, and instant access to Facebook and Premier League results, and want that luxury too. There has also been an increasing demand of value added mobile communication services such as mobile banking and other M4D services and applications driving mobile phone ownership.

What is your prediction about the state of mobile telephony in Africa in the next five years?
There are a number of trends in the mobile market that eventually will bring down both capital expenditure (CAPEX) and operating expenditure (OPEX), including shared infrastructure both in terms of network transmission and mobile towers where companies buy ownership of towers or transmission and operators hire sites/transmission from these companies. This will eventually result in more subscribers, more internet users, more tailored services that address actual needs – more of everything. We will most likely see a lower ARPU and more failures too. That said, failing in ICT4D and M4D is common but necessary. Failure means you dared to take a risk.

What do you think could be the next big driver for mobile/smartphone acquisition in Africa?
Basically three things.
1) Cheaper and customised handsets. This is key. Today, smartphones rely too much on constant internet access for cloud storage and application updates for example; this drains the battery and mobile data costs too much for the end-user. Majority of smartphones are still designed for urban usage, where electricity is reliable and charging facilities many, where handsets can easily be repaired, and where there is free or cheap internet including WIFI. This needs to change to meet the need from the masses. More robust phones with extended battery life, with enough memory and storage in the phone, and that works perfectly fine without constant internet access.
2) Cheap and reliable mobile Internet. The need is there and ever increasing where social networks and media such as Facebook and Twitter are the main drivers. For this to take of the OS needs to be in place too. It will be interesting to see how products like Android One will be received in Africa.
3) Services and applications that address a real need and support everyday life like livelihoods, health, agriculture. We have seen how mobile banking have changed how people save, transfer and transact money in Kenya for example.

From a researchers point of view, what do you see as the most challenging or pressing issues for Africa’s Mobile phones distributors and resellers at the moment?
Besides meeting the demand from existing and potential customers, a real challenge will be to cater for the whole life cycle of the mobile handset. For example, new smartphones require software updates and if something can go wrong it will. The support system, both from a hardware and a software point of view, needs to be there. Finally, what responsibility do distributors and resellers have once the handset is dead and beyond repair? Will there be any recycling system in place? Environmental impacts of the waste, including toxic metals, are and will be a significant concern.

What advice would you give as solution(s) of overcoming those challenges in Africa?
First, stop the import of low quality gadgets. Quality products that last longer might be slightly more expansive in the short run but definitely cheaper in the long run. Mobile phone distributors and resellers must take a bigger responsibility for all stages, especially when the product died. How this should be regulated or addressed is a question for regulators and policymakers.

Mobiles will replace banks


“Sweden is behind. The young population and the rapid urbanisation puts East Africa at the forefront.”  This is a quote from an article in the Swedish business journal Veckans Affärer (“The Week’s Business) about mobile banking in Uganda, written by Isabelle Swahn. When interviewed, I argue that mobile money is definitely here to stay, that it will grow, and integrate even more with existing financial and public services. Demographics and contextual factors put East Africa at the forefront when it comes to mobile services, especially mobile banking. Sweden has a lot to learn from these developments. An argument for the East African operators to further push and develop mobile banking services is that they also function as a loyalty product to aid in retaining and acquiring new customers, i.e. a way to prevent churn and increase the revenue and ARPU.

ICT4D Donor Agencies and Networks

wileyA new article titled ICT4D Donor Agencies and Networks, co-written with Paula Uimonen, is now published in The International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society (Feb 2015, edited by Robin Mansell and Peng Hwa Ang). It focuses on the roles of donor organisations and networks within ICT4D. Abstract: Information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) evolved as a field of development cooperation in conjunction with the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 and 2005. Prior to this United Nations summit, few donors were involved in ICT4D, but as policymakers around the world became involved in the WSIS process, ICT4D emerged as an important aspect of the global development agenda. Donors started to recognize that ICT offered a tool for development, not least for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). After the WSIS interest dwindled among leading donor agencies, but resurfaced as mobile technologies became widespread even in income-poor countries and among poor populations and after the digitally mediated social uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring which highlighted the social and political significance of the internet. New actors are becoming involved including philanthropic organizations, while the ICT4D field continues to explore new working methods like multistakeholder partnerships. Meanwhile, ICT is gradually becoming integrated into development efforts, although global patterns of digital stratification still remain to be overcome.

NIMC on Aktuellt in partnership with the Swedish ICT4D organisation SPIDER fights sextortion of Kenyan university students. This was discussed live on the Swedish nightly news programme Aktuellt (SVT), Tuesday April 22nd 2014. 594’000 live viewers + a few thousand via SVT Play.


M4D2014 – CFP

Time for another M4D conference, this time in Dakar, Senegal. See call here. Keynotes from Laura Stark and Anne Shongwe. Note that there will be a special PhD workshop in conjunction with the conference where Jonathan Donner and Rich Ling, together with the two keynotes mentioned, will facilitate.

Bas Hoefman presenting at M4D2012. Photo: Johan using a Nokia N900

Bas Hoefman presenting at M4D2012. Photo: Johan using a Nokia N900

ICT and water governance

Residents in Kibera can access information on water from vendors (location, price, quality) via USSD

Residents in Kibera can access information on water from vendors (location, price, quality) via USSD. Photo credit: Maria Jacobson

The 2013 World Water Week report is out – Cooperation for a Water Wise World – Partnerships for Sustainable Development. It “provides input into the discussions at the 2013 World Water Week in Stockholm” and “explore emerging issues such as the role of information and communications technology in advancing water cooperation, the importance of climate mitigation and adaptation coherence and the interplay between actors in the water, food and energy nexus”. I have written the chapter on ICT together with Maria Jacobson from SIWI. Through an assessment of current ICT-enabled water supply projects in East Africa, the general conclusion is that access to information and increased transparency will only lead to actual results on the ground if there are mechanisms in place to ensure that someone will be held responsible to act upon it. Users must see a direct benefit from spending their time and resources to interact and not just be a feeder or a passive receiver of data. An extended article on the topic will follow.

At World Water Week in Stockholm on On 4th of Sept 2013, IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre together with Akvo Foundation; Rural Water Supply Network; UNDP Water Governance Facility at SIWI; Water and Sanitation for Africa; Water and Sanitation Program; Water For People; Water Integrity Network and WaterAid, will convene a seminar on “Changing Relationships: ICT to Improve Water Governance“. I’ll deliver a keynote on Mobile Participation where I’ll try to explain (in 10 minutes!) the hype of and hope in new technologies for governance.

What evidence exists to support the argument that the mobile phone is an effective tool in the fight against corruption?

Re-print of an article written for Spider Newsletter 34, which had a thematic focus on corruptionin recognition of 9 December as the International Anti-Corruption Day.


A year ago, Spider launched the publication Increasing transparency and fighting corruption through ICT in which Spider wished to highlight the potential of ICT as an anti-corruption tool. This year, the number of ICT related initiatives and projects that address corruption (defined in its widest sense) have doubled if not tripled. The most visible development is the use of crowdsourcing methods by civil society organisations, making it possible for citizens to voice their concerns, demand improved service delivery and report corruption. Huduma in Kenya (and soon to be launched in Uganda), UsPeak and Ureport in Uganda, Ramani Tandale project in Tanzania all constitute good examples of the crowdsourcing trend.

Since the ICT/corruption report was launched, Spider has also engaged in the field by supporting a number of projects in East Africa aimed to increase transparency and accountability in public service delivery (see Box 1). In most of these projects the mobile phone constitutes an important component.

Box 1

The ‘SMS for Human Rights’ project by the Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance (CHRAGG) make it possible for citizens to report human rights violations and bad governance. Similarly, Transparency International Uganda addresses the problem of corruption, absenteeism and inadequate social accountability in the health sector through mobile phones and a free call centre. Another service delivery monitoring project, run by Wougnet, aims to raise awareness on corruption and poor service delivery through ICT (mobile, radio and internet). In the run-up to the 2012 Kenyan national elections, Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHCR) will monitor service delivery at local level and encourage dialogue using social media and mobile phones.The ‘Chanjo’ in Tanzania uses music, social media and mobile phones in innovative ways to tackle corruption, selfishness and laziness. Another project directly targeting corruption is ‘Not Here’ who will develop web and mobile interfaces to rate performance of public servants as well as report and follow up on cases of corruption.

In order to understand the field more, both CIPESA in Uganda and iHub Research in Kenya, have conducted research on the mobile supported interface between government and citizens.

Read more about the projects here and about the ICT4Democracy network here.

These projects rest on the assumption that access to information is a critical enabler for good governance in the sense that if citizens have more (and access to) information about the activities of their government, then empowered citizens will put extra pressure on the government to be more transparent and accountable and public officials will be compelled to perform their jobs more competently. The hypothesis is that the ubiquitous mobile phone and the set up of various hotlines and crowdsourcing platforms facilitate this access to information and therefore play a role in the fight against corruption.

Unfortunately, the literature on this research topic is rather sparse and faces a number of important limitations. There is a growing body of evidence but the ‘evidence’ is uneven and scattered, partly because initiatives are new and impacts unknown. Evidence in one case and context is usually not corroborated by studies in another. Also, integrating systems and scaling up the mobile technologies into existing public administration structures is a complex procedure. Therefore, little research actually exists to support the argument that the mobile phone is an effective tool in the fight against corruption.

Analysing data from Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), suggests that the mere presence of mobile phones does not itself lower the levels of corruption. This contradicts Bailard‘s findings from 2009, which draws CPI and mobile phone penetration data from 46 nations over the period 1999 to 2006. The study claims that the very presence of mobile phones does lower the levels of corruption “by decentralizing information and communication, thereby shrinking the veil of secrecy that shields corrupt behaviour” (Bailard 2009 p. 350). However, in East Africa, despite the exceptional mobile phone growth in the region in the past decade, corruption levels are perceived to have increased in Kenya and Uganda since 1998, while Tanzania has only seen a slight improvement (see Table 1).

Table 1. CPI in three East African countries 1998-2011

Rank2011 Country


2011 2006 2001 1998
100 Tanzania 3.0 2.9 2.2 1.9
143 Uganda 2.4 2.7 1.9 2.6
154 Kenya 2.2 2.2 2.0 2.5

Source: Transparency International 2011

These figures suggest that access to mobiles phones alone is not sufficient. For mobile phones to be an effective anti-corruption tool, they need to be used in more targeted projects. For mobile phones to support feedback mechanisms to monitor corruption, basic data on government’s expenditures and performance must be available. To encourage citizens to continue to send in reports, incentives in the form of relevant feedback need to be built into the system. For citizens to report at all, they need to know about the existing initiative and trust its source and reliability.

One or two mobile facilitated anti-corruption projects will not solve the problem and make the difference. This said we might see a positive change when there are many initiatives and projects working together. The growing army of ‘citizen reporters’ deserve a better and more secure feedback mechanism, mash up maps need to be interlinked, and the open (government) data movement must spread. For this to happen, and for us to be able to answer the title question, organisations like Spider also need to open up: we need be transparent, share our knowledge, network more, and support innovative initiatives in the way we can.