The (Previously) Untold Story Of Africa’s Mobile Revolution – Forbes

How do you transform a continent?  The answer: you start small.

Africa’s mobile revolution has been called a phenomenon that “changed African nations more significantly than any development since their independence from colonial powers.”  Today, Africa is even more reliant on mobile technology than the West.  But one important story has remained untold.  It’s the saga of how one person, imbued with entrepreneurial passion and surrounded by a supportive ecosystem of colleagues, helped launch an SMS text messaging service for real-time market pricing that eventually transformed the continent.

The successful ending of the story is already well-known.  The South African telecom company MTN and Grameen Bank partnered to push mobile phones into rural parts of Africa.  Consequently, millions of people benefited from market pricing through text messaging.  Grameen Bank gets a lot of well-deserved credit for this story.  But the story of this revolution doesn’t begin with Grameen.  It starts even smaller.

Cecilia’s story

In 2001, Cecilia Ciepiela-Kaelin saw a problem.  At the time, she was working on a USAID-backed team assembled to advise Uganda’s President Mouseveni.  Her specific task: use information and communication technology to support economic competitiveness.  She knew that rural Africa was very much still in the pre-mobile era. While mobile technology had taken off rather quickly in urban centers, rural telephone use was mainly limited to pay-per-call landline programs.

Photo by Ken Banks,

Cell phone in Uganda charging by car battery.  Photo by Ken Banks,

However, Cecilia also saw an opportunity.  One of the biggest problems facing rural farmers, fisherfolk, and other small producers was a lack of real-time market information. They had little to no idea about the prices that their products were selling for in marketplaces, even those just a few dozen miles away. Consequently, small producers lost a lot of potential revenue.

Cecilia had discovered that 60 percent of Nile perch fisherfolk in Uganda’s Lake Victoria didn’t have access to any price information. Those who did relied on word of mouth or radio broadcasts for price information, which was one-directional and often delayed.  Thus, they had to sell their fish to collectors working for or selling to the processors, who controlled prices which varied unpredictably among the 10 different Ugandan market landing sites on the lake.

Cecilia felt that access to two-way, real-time communication regarding price information would accomplish a range of her objectives. She thought that access to price information would, in her words:

  • “allow primary producers to capture more value”;
  • create “a more transparent link between price and quality/safety to provide incentives for improving production practices”;
  • “and last, but not least, that better production practices, driven by price and quality incentive, might contribute to slowing depletion and improving environmental compliance.”

However, it wasn’t an idea that emerged in a vacuum.  It also came from listening to other people around her, working with them closely, and pushing forward despite significant headwinds from skeptics.

Photo by Ken Banks,

Cell phone stand in Uganda. Photo by Ken Banks,

For example, Cecilia observed that African mobile service providers had saturated the urban markets in the region and were looking for a way to expand into rural regions. If they could do that while scoring corporate responsibility points for helping rural economic conditions, all the better. And in Uganda’s Lake Victoria and coffee and cotton production areas, 1.2 million people went without cell service. What’s more, they were willing to pay for SMS, particularly when fish prices reached a certain level—which would become more likely if they had access to accurate price information. Combine that with the fact that European demand for Nile perch was on the rise due to mad cow outbreaks, and the conditions were ripe for such a program.

An initial pilot program with the help of South African mobile service provider MTN—costing roughly $50,000 and involving price collectors, training programs, and donated phones—was a success. But after six weeks, the program was set to end. This was unacceptable to Cecilia.  She reached out to anyone she could find to extend the life of the program. Says Cecilia, “Given the potential that the partnership would simply end with the pilot, I started talking with anyone who would listen about what an opportunity it was to pick this up and continue and expand the partnership with MTN.”

Through a stroke of luck, Cecilia ran into a representative of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh who was looking for an opportunity to expand the success of their rural cell phone program in Bangladesh.

With evidence of a successful pilot program and a little convincing, Grameen decided to implement and scale the SMS program up through their Village Phone program. And Africa’s mobile revolution was born.

Twelve years after Cecilia’s pushing and prodding, ingenuity, opportunism, and luck, she still doesn’t want to take much credit. She gives thanks to the help and forward thinking of those around her. She said, “The relationships, collaborative approach, and trust generated contributed to the evolution of an innovation ecosystem in Kampala that thrives today.”

The lesson

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