Fourteen years ago, at the dawn of the new millennium, exactly one percent of the entire population on the continent of Africa owned a mobile phone.

 

Nowadays? More than 600 million people call themselves cell phone owners – over 56 percent of the population. The exponential leap in mobile phone usage is illustrative of the single most transformative technological trend in African history and a harbinger of an increasingly interconnected continent, one bridged and coupled by texts, phone banking, and a hundred other mobile-based services.

 

Africa boasts the fastest growth in mobile subscribers on the planet, with one billion subscribers forecasted by 2015. Mobile technology is benefiting from a young demographic — 200 million people on the continent fall between the ages of 15 and 24 — and specific sets of problems ripe for mobile solutions. Mobile connectivity is spurring a rise in innovative solutions made by Africans for Africans, addressing uniquely African issues.

 

Much of the African continent remains sparsely populated, with networks of small villages connected to larger cities by poorly-maintained roadways and transportation networks. Infrastructure remains a problem, as does consistent access to electricity and clean water. Corruption, political violence and an array of economic barriers still discourage investment in some African countries, rendering systemic issues difficult to address with the tools available.

 

That is, in part, why the mobile revolution has fallen on such fertile ground. Using relatively basic 2G and SMS cellular networks and cheap mobile phones with long-lasting battery life, consumers in African countries can take advantage of an astonishing array of mobile services tailored to tackling their specific needs. In Kenya, mobile banking service M-PESA has revolutionized the flow of personal finance, allowing its 18 million active users to easily transfer money via text to shopkeepers, landlords, relatives and business associates.

 

Elsewhere, farmers can check market prices for their goods via SMS while young professionals opt for mobile retail shopping rather than visiting a local mall. Education and literacy efforts are benefiting from such organizations as Binu and Worldreader, which utilize mobile technology to distribute a vast array of e-books to African consumers. Nairobi “matatu” (public bus) riders can connect to free Wi-Fi while in transit and medical professionals can make use of mobile applications to monitor patients and provide a higher standard of care.

 

Much of the mobile activity on the continent is handled in-house, with African telecomm companies generating most of the capacity and connectivity for their home nations and others. Foreign investment in mobile services is increasing, but most of the heavy-duty innovation is being accomplished on the ground.

 

That is hardly surprising. African countries are intimately familiar with a whole range of circumstances — both good and bad — rendered incomprehensible to their neighbors on different continents. As mobile technology continues its lighting advance into the pockets and the lifestyles of African consumers, it will always be home-grown innovation that best meets the unique demands of life on the continent.

 

What do you think of the rise in mobile tech in Africa? Could other countries take greater advantage of their cellular networks? Start the dialogue in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter @aa_murph