For all of the media noise about Twitter, at least in the affluent world, the big global communications story is about the mobile phone (the blue line in the charts above – click on them to make them a little larger). About eighteen months ago, global mobile penetration went past the 50% mark. Now, the International Telecommunications Union reckons that it has – as at the end of 2008 – climbed above 60%. This is the figure for paid subscriptions, so in terms of usage it’s inflated in the affluent world – where some people have two – and under-estimated in the poorer world, where some people share. The fastest rate of growth is in Africa, and that’s also where many of the most interesting applications are to be found.

In Africa, mobile penetration has now reached 28%, from 2% in 2002. Phones are expensive relative to earnings – around £10 to £20 – but are worth it because they overcome two huge business problems – poor telecoms infrastructure and poor payments infrastructure. (And the cost of a phone has fallen dramatically over the course of the decade, down from around £100). The most successful mobile payments system, M-Pesa in Kenya, now has five million subscribers, and is being widely copied elsewhere.

The impact of the phone was picked up in a Guardian profile of a Kenyan taxi-driver, Boniface Kamau, on the day of the ITU report:

As a work tool, the phone soon paid itself off. His customers who went on trips abroad could now text him before boarding a return flight in Europe or Asia so he could pick them up. First-time clients could contact him for subsequent trips around town. “Business became so much easier,” said Kamau. “I never turned my phone off because there was always money to be made.”

Every week Kamau hands his savings to his local Safaricom agent, who credits the deposit into his virtual account. He then transfers about £25 via text message to his mother’s phone, who withdraws it at her nearest agent by entering a secret code. “She sometimes has the money in her hand in five minutes.”

It’s worth just comparing the data on other online communications technologies. Globally, internet users have reched 23% of the whole; 19% have fixed line phones; 6% have access to fixed line broadband; and 5% have access to mobile broadband.

The ITU’s report [downloadable as free pdf] also introduces a “development index” which combines 11 different measures of communications and infrastructure to create a single measure to rank – and compare – different countries. In the report there’s a reasonably detailed discussion of how the index was constructed, but effectively it combines measures of infrastructure (readiness), skills, and actual usage into a single measure of impact.

According to the index, all but one of the top ten places are held by European countries – Sweden is top, Britain tenth – and the one exception is South Korea, in second place. Hong Kong lies in eleventh with the United States in seventeenth. But the match between ICT and competitiveness isn’t that clear, despite the political rhetoric in the UK and elsewhere; Germany and Japan are in thirteenth and fourteenth place, respectively, while Iceland is fifth. The bottom ten countries are all in Africa (because the index is built from a basket of indicators).


The table is supported by country-by-country pen portraits which are likely to be a boon for time-pressed researchers.The report and the press release both claim that there is a strong correlation between overall position in the index and ICT prices, but on the face of it there’s some correlation but not a strong one, since only five countries make the top ten of both tables (the price chart showing the 20 lowest countries by price is below). As claims go it has something of an ideological feel to it; yes, prices do drive markets, but other factors drive them as well.


And I wonder if the underlying assumption of the table, which is effectively that more even development of different types of ICT is needed, may prove in future to be mistaken. It creates a tidiness which distracts from our understanding of how particular technologies are used to particular ends, with particular effects in particular social and economic situations.

The best source for news and insight on Africa’s communications revolution remains Russell Southwood’s Balancing Act newsletter and market and technology reports.