texting is 20 years old

Phone Power

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Oct 14, 2012    •    617 Views

Only 3 years ago in sub-Saharan Africa, more than two-thirds of all roads were unpaved, three-quarters of the population was without electricity, and there were 3 landline phones per 100 people.

Enter the cell phone.

As of 2010, in low and middle income economies, an average of 72 of every 100 people had a mobile phone subscription. In a 2010 article, economists Jenny Aker and Isaac Mbiti present wonderful examples of how cell phones can transform life. “In Ghana, farmers in Tamale are able to send a text message to learn corn and tomato prices in Accra, over 400 kilometers away. In Niger, day laborers are able to call acquaintances in Benin to find out about job opportunities without making the US$40 trip. In Malawi, those affected by HIV and AIDS can receive text messages daily, reminding them to take their medicines on schedule.” (p. 207)

More generally, the impact of widespread mobile phone use could include:

  • increasing market efficiency
  • improving supply chain oversight
  • creating new jobs
  • reducing risk exposure through more communication
  • delivering necessary services (health, finance, education)


Still though, Aker and Mbiti conclude that we cannot be sure of the mobile phone’s impact. By contrast, development economist Jeffrey Sachs suggests that it will be a transformative technology.

Rewinding for a moment to the US economy, I keep thinking of our development sequence. Moving from the first 17th and 18th century roads to 19th century canals and railroads, by 1900, the US had a transportation infrastructure. Add to that the telegraph, telephone and spread of electricity. And now, mobile phones.

Today, instead, leapfrogging older communications technology,  will the mobile phone stimulate sub-Saharan economic development?

A Final Fact: During the week of March 1, 2012, China reached its 1 billionth mobile phone subscription. The Economist says China’s numbering system can generate 100 billion phone numbers.

Sources and Resources: The 2010 Aker/Mbiti article and the 2012 World Bank report provided my information on mobile phones through a wealth of ideas and detail. This Economist Daily Chart comparing mobile phones in China, India and the US is also interesting.

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