Recently, I returned from a month-long research seminar in Ghana where I collected data for a field study on a mobile market information system serving the agricultural industry in parts of Africa. During the trip, I investigated the impact of mobile service on farmers’ livelihoods to identify the technological and circumstantial factors that facilitate or inhibit use. Through interviews with farmers, village chiefs and academics, I observed these five mobile trends.

1. Mobile ownership and usage knows no boundaries

Ghana’s mobile network operators (MNOs) estimate there are more than 27 million active mobile users, which represents mobile penetration at more than 100 percent of the population (Ghana’s estimated population is 25 million), and the actual number of individual users is between 15 and 16 million. In Ghana, the SIM card works as a pay-as-you go service, so users have little loyalty to one MNO and some own up to three devices to keep track of their various phone numbers and air time. Because service and devices are relatively affordable, access to mobile crosses socio-economic lines, increasing inter-personal communication, access to information and business opportunities in the country.

2. Users see mobile as a social tool first, business tool second

Many micro- and small-business owners and farmers are hesitant to acknowledge the mobile phone as a business tool. One business owner mentioned that mobile phones are for “friendly relations… not for commercial or any other purpose.” Yet, when asked how he contacts prospective buyers, he said he calls them. This perception highlights an important social paradox, particularly for companies attempting to convert the mobile phone into a business tool in Africa. Business purposes can co-exist with social purposes on the mobile phone – provided the business operations don’t supplant the social communications in any way (i.e. many users are reluctant to pay for a mobile business service when that money could be used to purchase air time for contacting distant relatives).

3. Users innovate with mobile to reduce costs

Mobile communication is affordable, but it isn’t cheap. Because mobile has risen to become a sort of social status in Ghana (people are known to carry around inoperable phones just to keep up appearances), users have devised ways of cutting down costs. Common strategies include “flashing,” or calling someone’s phone and promptly hanging up before the call registers with the MNO. Presumably the user has airtime and will return the call on his or her dime. Others avoid texting fees by using the increasingly popular WhatsApp web messaging service.

4. Budding initiatives in mobile health and banking

Because of the prevalence of mobile, companies from all industries are looking for ways to further their business and organizational goals through the medium. Two organizations whose work and mission resonated with me are MOTECH and Ecobank. MOTECH aims to increase the quantity and quality of antenatal and neonatal care in Ghana, especially in rural areas, by communicating health information for pregnant women via mobile devices. Another service taking off in Ghana and throughout Africa is Ecobank, which in addition to regular personal finance offerings, is facilitating transactions through e-wallets on consumers’ mobile phones.

5. Opportunity for information democratization

Mobile is a force for information democratization. Take the agricultural industry, for example, Weather information, market prices and other critical information has a history of being delayed or is simply inaccessible. Usually, this information is only accessible on TV, radio and PCs – devices many village farmers can’t afford. Now, this information is available to Ghanaian farmers via a free SMS service which many have given the low cost and broad network coverage. This enables more vulnerable populations to make more informed decisions about when to plant, how much to plant, where to sell product, etc. This in turn reduces risk and increases the potential for earning a profit.

It’s clear that mobile is taking off in new and interesting ways in Africa. How might these trends and insights apply to global clients you’re working on?

Photo courtesy of author.

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