An article in yesterday’s New York Times observes that, with the number of mobile subscriptions exceeding five billion, more people today have access to a cell phone than to a clean toilet. Leaving aside the relative value of these two appliances, the surge in cell phones in Africa—some 94 percent of urban Africans are near a GSM signal—is transforming the continent. Farmers in Niger use cell phones to find out which market is giving the best price; people in Kenya pay their bills and send money home using M-Pesa.
The major driver of this growth has been deregulation of the cellular telephone sector, which led to massive private investment in the sector. It is no coincidence that Ethiopia, one of the few countries hasn’t deregulated its telecommunications sector, has one of the lowest rates of mobile phone use in Africa.
Although cell phones are now widely available because government got out of the way, they may have the effect of helping government do its job better. The Times’ article notes that in India, the cell phone is used in citizen election monitoring, and in equipping voters, via text message, with information on candidates’ incomes and criminal backgrounds. Some of my colleagues are working on using cell phones to verify if the teacher is present in the classroom, or the doctor is in the clinic. Perhaps one day cell phones will bring to half the African population something else they lack—clean toilets.