Technologies of Freedom Expanding in Africa


Sometimes it seems that good news seldom comes from Africa. However, a truly fascinating article in IEEE Spectrum points out that cellphone use is growing at 58 percent per year in sub-Saharan Africa, rising from zero subscribers in 1994 to 82 million in 2004. Government-owned landline companies, which are notoriously bad at providing service to people, are being outcompeted by private and private/public partnership cellphone service providers throughout the continent. According to the article:

Africa is going wireless for a very simple reason: its national telecommunications monopolies are poorly managed and corrupt, and they can't afford to lay new lines or maintain old ones. So in most sub-Saharan countries not even 1 percent of the population have landline-connected telephones. That compares with more than 10 lines per 100 people in Latin America and more than 64 per 100 in the United States. Indeed, Tokyo and New York City each have more fixed-line telephones than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. These numbers are even more daunting when you consider that fixed lines tend to be concentrated in capital cities, leaving rural communities totally bereft. For instance, while the country of Senegal has about 140 000 lines, 65 percent, or 91 000, of those lines are in the capital city, Dakar.

In 2000 election monitors wielding cellphones managed to prevent election fraud by reporting returns as they came in and to call attention to any efforts to stuff ballot boxes. As a result, and unlike so many other elections in Africa, the incumbent president of Senegal was forced to concede and step down. The article also points out that cellphones enable less elevated behavior as well, incliuding philandering:

While some Africans wield their cellphones to protect their fledgling democracies, others thumb the keypad for that most prurient of purposes–the booty call. Mobile telephony provides a new, convenient way to carry on affairs without risking a spouse's overhearing plans for an illicit rendezvous. Lovers often communicate with text messages or "beeping"–one party dials another's number and then hangs up. Beep buddies usually work out a code between themselves. One ring could mean, "I am here," two rings, "Call me now." In most of Asia, Europe, and Africa, where the calling party pays only upon connection, beeping is a cheap way to send a signal.

However, if cellphones enable sexual liaisons, they also facilitate economic and political ones. There is real hope that as cellphones and wireless networks increase their capabilities, they will help Africa leapfrog from medieval authoritarian squalor to something like the 21st century.