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Mobile and Internet: Tools for poverty alleviation in Africa

Edward Amartey-Tagoe's picture


I can still remember the times my mum would call us into her bedroom after family dinner and my siblings and I had finished our chores. There, we’d listen to the voice of my older sister on tape cassette through the speakers of my mum’s boombox, with no way to respond to the monologue. We’d just listen, digest, and in a week, we’d send a reply back to her in Greece, also via cassette. We later found out it took her some four or so weeks to receive each reply.
 
A few years later, I remember seeing the first mobile phone. My schoolmaster was one of the few people with one, so big it couldn’t fit into his pocket, so it hung on the side of his long trousers. His phone was a utility for all; young, old, strangers, friends, those far and near. He would receive a call from around the world from relatives of neighbors throughout the community. After such calls he would send his 10-year-old son, Abu, to quickly go and fetch whoever the call was meant for. Sometimes Abu would run with the big device in his hand, other times, the caller would promise to call later, which meant the recipient would have to come sit by the phone for several and wait for that one call.
 
It’s been more than 19 years since many families went through such challenges to communicate with friends and family outside of Ghana. Now, everyone has a phone, at least, that is what the statistics say. The last time I saw Abu, even he had his own phone, and he is one of Ghana’s 30% with access to the Internet. From time to time, Abu and I catch up over Whatsapp, laughing at how life used to be and how things have changed so much. But more importantly, Abu and I wonder how Ghana could take advantage of mobile and internet penetration to alleviate poverty and make things better for its people.
 
Ghana prides itself on its high-mobile penetration rate; according to the National Communications Authority, more than 35 million Ghanaians are mobile subscribers, which has made life easier for the hands that hold them.
 
With levels of poverty in Ghana, one would ask why Ghana has failed to take full advantage of mobile and Internet to tackle some of the challenges it faces. With more than 300 women dying in 100,000 childbirths, our maternal mortality rates are unimpressive. How can we ensure many more Ghanaians like Abu can grow up to take full advantage of the Internet and mobile? From my perspective as technology company owner, there are three things we need to focus on immediately, if we hope to benefit from mobile and the Internet.
 
Leave no child behind: First, it is important to take education seriously. Whether we like it or not, the benefits of mobile and the Internet are enhanced by one’s educational standards. Needless to say, an iPhone 6S is not as useful in the hands of an educated user as it is in the hands of an unlettered one. Technology presents so many benefits which if well harnessed, which could lead to not only Ghana, but also the continent, to solve some of its pressing challenges. We however cannot expect our citizens to take full advantage of this utility if we do not properly educate the continent’s next generation. We need to put ensure every child of school-going age is in school and gets access to quality education. Not the ones that force kids to learn under trees, but the type of education which makes our graduates competitive globally.
 
Creating an environment and opportunities for Internet-based businesses: When Whatsapp was sold for $19 billion, the world was shocked. Some mouths gaped open as their brains controlling them attempted to fully digest and count the number of zeroes on that check. Imagine what this revenue could do if this sale had been made by an African company! $19 billion could shake the economy of any African country and send its gross domestic product (GDP) several notches higher. So why are we not aggressively creating the necessary environment for our smart brains to pursue such initiatives? Since 2007, tech hubs have sprung up across the continent. I am excited by the buzz they create in local and international media. I am also excited to know Africa might very soon have its own unicorn (a company valued at more than $1 billion), but where is the government’s hand in all of this? Why are private players the only ones spearheading such initiatives? It will be a benefit to every player if the government aggressively played a part in encouraging the youth to go into such ventures. In the end, the products churned out of these businesses will solve a social or economic problem faced by the country. Or who knows? These companies could be the next tech giants on the continent.
 
Private players who are already in the technology industry must be supported: Taxes and duties on laptops must be relaxed or completely removed to create a culture of innovation. It would pay a bit more if we took the ICT courses taught in our schools a bit more seriously. There are still schools which teach ICT without computers, where kids learn about parts of the monitor and CPU from a drawing on a blackboard. More dedication in this area will go a long way to increase the interest of the school kids in computer science related courses.
 
To get us ready for the future, we need to do these now. We need to do these aggressively!
 

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