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Light Shining in the Dark Continent- one mobile at a time

Aly-Khan Satchu's picture

I am encouraged that the self-educated child I met when my car broke down on the Kenyan coast can monetize his intellectual capital using mobile technology.

My point of departure is one of my favourite novels, “A House for Mr. Biswas”,  and a scene that has stayed imprinted on my memory's mausoleum forever. The scene is one where this young boy is describing see the lights of a car approach and then drive by.   The car was a symbol for the new century and that was the closest it got.   Four years ago, my car broke down on the Mombasa-Nairobi road and this young boy emerged out of the bush and started to talk to me.   And he said he spoke Latin.   He had found a Latin primer and taught himself the language and when tested, he was quite proficient.  Yet like the boy in a “House for Mr. Biswas”, he was watching the world go by until that day- the day my car broke down.

Ten years ago, there were 15,000 mobile phones in Kenya.  At some point, this year, there will statistically be one mobile phone per adult.  That is a laboratory experiment right there.  Consider that within that decade, the super spike has been towards the end. In fact, more Kenyans have a mobile phone than access to a clean toilet. The information age has trumped sanitation.

And it is the mobile phone that is the entry ticket for more than 1 billion Africans to join and converge with the 21st century. That little boy on the side of the Mombasa-Nairobi road, who speaks Latin, can now finally monetize his intellectual capital. He could not before. This is a disjunctive moment.  There was a famous Economist front cover “Africa: The Dark Continent”, well, the light just got switched on.

As a side note, I sense the next tipping point is when the smart phone device costs a $100.00 or less, which cannot be that far away.

In his Development Outreach article, Iqbal Z. Quadir talks of “the positive economic impact of mobile phones is so profound that it elucidates the general power of productivity tools in creating individual and collective prosperity from the bottom up” and I think it is easy to miss the grass roots and bottoms up nature of this revolution.  The mobile phone is the equivalent of teaching people to fish in the 21st century.


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