ITU AFRICA - Africans Change the Face of Mobility

Mobile money transfers, payments, how to charge customers and e-health are some of the areas where the rest of the world can look to Africa for inspiration.

“The Africans are using their mobile phones in a very entrepreneurial way, because it’s their lifeline, and small businesses depend on them,” said Pertti Johansson, president Middle East and Africa region at Qualcomm.

The first service Johansson mentioned is mobile payments and transfers. M-PESA ("M" for "mobile" and "PESA," the Swahili word for "money") in Kenya is the most famous such system in Africa, with about 2 million users a year after its launch.

It can be used for someone in an urban area to forward money to relatives in rural areas, and people in rural areas can pay off a loan in an urban area.

“You do it instantaneously with an SMS, you don’t have to travel for a day,” said Gabriel Solomon, senior vice president for public policy at industry organization GSM Association.

“You’re having more economic transactions, which stimulates economic growth,” said Solomon.

M-PESA has taken off is because it’s difficult for many people to get a bank account. Getting cash can also be difficult in rural areas, it also adds a sense of security, according to Mohamed Ragab, channels and activation team leader at Vodafone, which has developed the service.

The origin of the concept is also interesting.

“It started probably four or five years ago when operators allowed for airtime to be transferred between users, airtime effectively became a property for cash,” said Solomon.

That M-PESA has evolved from how operators charge doesn’t come as a surprise. Because most customers haven’t got that much money operators have had to think outside the box.

Something that also has had a profound impact on universal access in Africa is shared access, according to Solomon.

“It’s an amazing phenomenon. A handset, a bit of software, where you’re reselling airtime. In Uganda, for example, MTN estimates for every shared phone it serves 500 people,” he said.

If you are out of credit you can use something called beeping.

“The operator facilitates a message to be sent to someone you’d like to talk to, and the message says call me back. Some operators are even offering loans to the SIM card,” said Solomon.

Another area where interesting applications are starting to pop up is e-health.

”In South Africa they use SMS technology to monitor and prompt the taking of medicine,” said Solomon.

Using a pillbox with a built-in chip, when the patient opens it a message is sent to a central computer. If the patient doesn’t open the box, a message is sent as well, and the patient can be reminded.

For the South African government it has resulted in big savings because people don't need to visit the doctor as often, Solomon said.

“The use of the phone for more things than calls and basic services is a new revolution in here in Africa,” he said.

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