ICTs in rural development

Every street corner in Dar es Salaam is home to a brightly painted mobile phone kiosk or homegrown advert for phone services, or so it seems.  And that feels true of most African cities today. Bricks and mortar are not a requirement for a successful phone shop in Africa.  Under a tree, on a dusty street, near a bus stop – anywhere there is space and people walking by, you will find opportunities to buy airtime, use a phone or charge your own. Despite high levels of poverty in Africa and (perhaps because of) limited government services, growing numbers of people spend precious income on communications. Even rural citizens communicate across distances in ways that used to be impossible.

Africa is the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world, and increasingly this technology is being harnessed for developmental purposes. This feature article, published in Trialogue’s 2010 Annual CSI Handbook, points to varied and innovative applications of mobile technology throughout Africa, which demonstrate the enormous potential of ICTs for development, especially in rural contexts. Ultimately, the power of ICTs – as a readily available platform for sharing information – lies in being a catalyst for social change, which has social, economic and political consequences for rural development.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs (leading economist and Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General on Millenium Development Goals) says the mobile phone is “the single most transformative technology for development”. In his book, The End of Poverty, Sachs proposes that “extreme poverty can be ended by the year 2025. A rash predication, perhaps, given global violence, climate change, and threats to food, energy, and water supplies. But digital information technologies, if deployed cooperatively and globally, will be our most important new tools, because they will enable us to join together globally in markets, social networks, and cooperative efforts to solve our common problems.”

And therein lies the value of ICTs – that they support rural development; providing the much needed soft infrastructure that our traditional focus on systems of roads, water and power grids have not yet provided. The widespread rural prevalence of mobile phones has introduced connectivity that breaks the isolation of rural living that is so sorely felt in economic terms, where poverty is the norm. African rural communities don’t usually have roads, electricity, sewers, plumbing, clinics, schools. This isolation forces communities towards insular self-reliance where few economic opportunities exist without substantial investment and the cycle of poverty becomes endemic. But, ICTs and especially mobile phones, break that isolation by providing easy, affordable communication with the world outside the village. And that communication opens up economic, social and political opportunities for rural citizens, an otherwise forgotten and isolated group of people.

According to Africa Telecom News, Africa is the fastest growing mobile market in the world with penetration ranging from 100% to 30% (fastest growing are Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt). In 2007, there were 280 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa; in 2008 the estimate was 350 million. Growth is so fast that it’s difficult to measure, but forecasts put penetration in Africa at around 80% by 2012. Mobile phones are simply a tool, a catalyst, which can be used for many different purposes. For example, more South Africans used their phones to vote for Pop-Idols (21 million) than voted in the 2009 South African election. While that may provide some startling commentary on our societal values (entertainment above politics?), it also offers a snapshot of how people use their mobile phones for social purposes.


A transformative technology for development?

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have been linked to development in Africa for over a decade. Policy-makers wanting to create a better life for citizens; businesses looking for new markets; and development agencies wanting to do good – they have all been part of an ongoing conversation about how to leverage ‘connectivity’ for progress.


Many of these initiatives began under the umbrella of ‘ICTs for Development’ (ICT4D). Not that many initiatives have been successful thus far. They’ve been plagued by lack of infrastructure (electricity, telephone lines); prohibitive telecommunications and regulatory costs; lack of local ownership; and cultural insensitivity. Dropping computers into rural areas that don’t have electricity or technicians usually leads to unfulfilled expectations.  However, when technologies are already deeply embedded in people’s lives – like mobile phones – we shouldn’t be surprised when they improve livelihoods.

These days, many village farmers, shop owners, and consumers have access to a phone. The reason is simple really – communication improves living standards. For some it means contact with family or friends (a safety net for poor people, who have no other insurance). For sellers and buyers a phone saves money and time on wasted trips to the wrong markets. A phone is the lifeblood of communication for some, and therein, the basis of their social, economic and political interaction with the world. As investment in infrastructure rises and cost of access comes down, opportunities for using ICTs for rural development are growing.  Here are a few initiatives that have recently gained traction.

Village Telcos
Most hardware infrastructure that provides telephony and internet is left to market forces to roll out to rural areas. However, the village telco project is developing what they call the “cheapest, easiest-to-setup, easiest-to-manage, scalable, standards-based, wireless local do-it-yourself telephone company toolkit in the world” using opensource, low cost technologies. An important part of this is the Mesh Potato, a small box that provides free or low-cost telephony and internet in areas where alternative access either doesn’t exist or is too expensive.  It’s a marriage of a low-cost wireless access point and an Analog Telephony Adapter (ATA). The mesh potato is supported by the Shuttleworth Foundation, has been successfully tested in South Africa and is now commercially available. It provides opportunities for communities to run their own telephone networks, or link into larger telephone networks.  Commercialisation in different countries needs to be compliant with local regulations. In South Africa, you can use and share use of the network freely, but if you charge for others to use it, then you need to apply for a license.

Disaster and crisis management
Ushahidi – a platform for sharing information – is a shining example of technology developed in Africa for African needs, and then exported to the world. Ushahidi crowdsources information sent via mobile phones. This means that anyone can send an SMS to a central number and the information is plotted on a map that’s available on the internet. This is particularly useful in crisis management, when other forms of infrastructure and communication are down. Ushahidi’s first successful application was monitoring post-election violence in Kenya in 2007/08. The tool got international accolades after being used in post-earthquake Haiti to identify crisis hotspots and co-ordinate relief efforts, and later to map the damage of the gulf oil spill. Swiftriver, an extension of Ushahidi, helps filter valid information from ‘noise’, a handy tool when user generated content becomes overwhelming.


Mobile banking
M-Pesa is a Kenyan initiative allowing customers to use their phones – at a local retailer – for financial transactions such as money transfers to family and friends. No banks required. Initially supported by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID), the product was developed by Vodafone which owns 35% of Safaricom. Migrant remittances (sending money ‘home’) play an integral role in buffering the worst effects of poverty for rural households in Africa. Remittances are also good for the local economy, empowering vulnerable people by giving them more liquid cash to spend on household needs such as school fees, healthcare and food. The amount of money flowing through migrant remittances in the last decade has grown faster than both foreign direct investment (FDI) and official development aid (ODA). World Bank estimates put migrant remittances from developing countries at $283 billion in 2008. That doesn’t include informal flows of remittances that are hard to track.

Prior to the launch of M-Pesa, formal money transfer was dominated by Western Union and Moneygram, but M-Pesa has made it easier and cheaper to send money home, especially for those without a bank account. In South Africa, 63% of adults had a bank account in 2008, and that was after the introduction of Mzansi accounts aimed at banking the unbanked. M-Pesa launched in South Africa in 2010 through Vodafone and Nedbank, while Standard Bank has also promised cellphone money transfer capability.

ICTs help small farmers to move from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture, by providing channels for communication with new markets. Small farmers work against the odds with high risk and extreme weather dependence, and precious little help from farming technology. As a result, their need for information (about diverse markets and differing prices for their products) is acute. Reducing information costs for the farmer therefore means s/he is more able to participate in the market. Mobile phones are the best way to cut those information costs and allow farmers more options for where and how to sell their crops. For the price of a phone call, they communicate with buyers, getting valuable information about markets without having to spend money and time to travel for this information. This makes it financially viable (and even profitable) for subsistence farmers to move into commercial agriculture and boost their own, household and community’s economic development.

A recent success in the field of ICTs and education is ‘mobile for literacy’ (m4lit) at the Shuttleworth Foundation, which develops mobile novels to improve literacy levels among young South Africans. In the first seven months after launch, over 34 000 people had read the stories; over 4 000 people entered follow-up competitions; and over 4 000 comments were left by readers. Almost 60 000 people have adopted the story-teller as a friend on MXIT (instant messaging). In South Africa, where it only takes 3,000 sales to make a book on the shelves into a “bestseller”, these numbers show that m4lit is providing crucial opportunities for reading and writing for young people. Teachers have been astonished at the levels of engagement from learners in this project. Building on past success, m4lit has just launched a “library” of novels aimed at teens, at www.yoza.mobi.

Cell-life is a non-profit organisation using mobile technology to improve the lives of people infected and affected by HIV. Its projects help with the dispensing of drugs and diagnostics in remote areas. This has three-fold impact:


  • diagnosing rural patients onsite so they don’t have to travel,
  • creating a knowledge base about health issues that can feed into national and international health policies
  • supporting home based carers, who are at the coalface of development in rural settings.

Access to clean water
City dwellers tend to take safe drinking water for granted.  However, the World Health Organisation estimates that 1.8 million people die from water-borne diseases every year. The Universities of Cape Town and Bristol have developed an ‘aquatest’, currently being tested in South Africa’s Northern Cape and Eastern Cape. Community water managers check water sources with a simple test; send results to a database via SMS; and receive advice by SMS about the water quality and what can be done if it is undrinkable (e.g. boil or chlorinate water). This is a simple, but life-saving exercise that wouldn’t be possible without ICTs, and specifically mobile phones.

Participative democracy
The recent referendum held in Kenya was the first peaceful electoral event in that country in years, attributed in part to the use of a platform called Uchaguzi, set up to monitor election results as they were released. In addition, citizens used social networks such as twitter and Facebook to encourage their fellow citizens to vote peacefully. Analysts commented that the free flow of information influenced peaceful public sentiment.

Drug abuse counselling
Jamiix, started in the impoverished Cape Flats, allows organisations to manage multiple online conversations from both mobile and web platforms.  In conjunction with MXIT (instant messaging), it has been used successfully in managing online counselling for drug and substance abuse among young South Africans, as well as for the national Aids helpline in South Africa.

Critical success factors


Why have these initiatives succeeded where others have failed?  ICTs are complex and what works for one project may not work for another.  However, a number of trends may provide guidance for future projects:


  • Philanthropists/high risk investors – Telecomms operators built networks for commercial incentive, their risk minimized by the prepaid mobile concept. Under this model, people pay in small increments for what they use, allowing poor people to access small amounts of airtime. This was instrumental in making mobile phones more widely affordable.  However, projects that add value, like those mentioned above, were all started with the help of seed funding from donors or investors with an appetite for risk. African projects are high-risk investments and require some philanthropic spirit to take them on.
  • Policy – Growth has been exponential in countries (such as Kenya) where policy and regulatory frameworks encourage investment, innovation and local content development.
  • Costs – Lowering costs of access contributes to expanded opportunities for innovators. Prior to 2009, internet access was available through expensive satellite connections. Now, multi-million dollar projects are racing to lay fibre optic cables to connect Africa.  The current and planned cables include South Asia Telecom Cable (SEACOM), SAT-3, Main-one, Glo-one, East African Submarine Cable System (EASSY), The Eastern African Marine Systems (TEAMS), and West Africa Cable System (WACS).  By 2011, these will push up South Africa’s bandwidth capacity 120 times what it was, to around 10 terabits per second.

Taking ICTs to the next level

Finally, low-cost, high-speed internet is a real possibility in Africa. However, undersea cables only take connectivity to coastal cities – terrestrial networks must extend access to rural and inland areas.

Even so, the impact on mobile phone browsing has already been seen. Opera, a mobile browser, says that some of the company’s highest growth is in Africa. Some startling figures include 4 645% growth in page views in Sudan in the last year, and 639 pages viewed every month by average Kenyan users in the last year.

But, in order to further development through the use of ICTs, investors need to do several things. Firstly, build infrastructure that takes connectivity from undersea cables to rural areas. Secondly, support initiatives to drive growth in local content.  An example is the Apps4Africa contest, where local developers in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania are encouraged to build digital tools to address community challenges in areas ranging from healthcare to education, and government transparency to election monitoring. The website also allows non-technical users to share suggestions for developers to build technology projects that assist development. The contest runs for 2 months and winning developers receive a share of $15,000 and gadgets such as iPads. Developers are also encouraged to work together on projects.More of these incentives will encourage local ingenuity and if we’ve learned one lesson from past initiatives, it is that local problems do well with local solutions.
While mobile phones have been the most revolutionary technology in Africa thus far, they are not a magic potion working in isolation.  Information is a very powerful currency. But without medicines or healthcare, or access to clean water and good nutrition, people will still die. Without roads, people will still struggle to get to the hospital, or to the market. Without education, learners will still be illiterate. And without good governance, corruption will continue to rob the poor. The power of ICTs lies in their being a catalyst for social change, a readily available platform for sharing information, which has social, economic and political consequences for rural development.



Published in Trialogue’s 2010 CSI Handbook.