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Just Imagine

Africans get upwardly mobile in cell phone boom

  • Story Highlights
  • Over past decade, Africa and Asia has witnessed cellphone revolution
  • Seventy percent of new subscriptions came from poor countries since 2006
  • Cellphones enable emerging countries to "leapfrog" older technologies
  • Additional mobile phones in population increases GDP, study finds
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By Lara Farrar
For CNN
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LONDON (England) CNN -- One afternoon late in 2002, Mukhsin Alhassan Kadir drove his taxi from the busy streets of Accra, the capital of Ghana, to a nearby market community to meet a man who wanted to trade a plot of land for two cell phones.

Ghanaian taxi driver Mukhsin Alhassan Kadir once traded two cell phones for a plot of land.

When he arrived, Kadir collected the papers for the land and handed over what would be the first telephones this man and his wife had ever had in their lives.

"During that time, everybody wanted to own a mobile phone, but it was not common to find them in this country," Kadir told CNN.

In less than a decade, cellphones, once the preserve of the very rich, are now ubiquitous in Africa and parts of Asia.

A device that's sometimes used as a fashion accessory in the West has become a lifeline for millions of people in the developing world.

In Ghana, Kadir's phone functions as a portable office that he takes on the road with him during his taxicab shifts.

"Sometimes I am in bed and a customer will call me and I will go and pick him up," said Kadir while driving a client down a highway on a recent morning in Accra. "It has helped my business a lot."

"There is nobody in Ghana who is not using a mobile phone," added Kadir, speaking to CNN on a late model Sony Ericsson that he ordered for around $220 from someone in Italy.

"Even a shoe shiner has his own mobile phone," he jokes.

Numbers from the International Telecommunications Union indicate that since the end of 2006, nearly 70 percent of those subscriptions have come from developing countries.

There are now almost seven million cellphone users in Ghana, up from only a couple hundred thousand subscribers in 2000. The continent's biggest users are in South Africa, with nearly 25 million subscribers, followed by Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco.

However, the figures are startling in the lesser developed and poorer African countries.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a population of 60 million, there are just 10,000 fixed telephones but more than a million cellphone subscribers. While in Chad, the fifth-least developed country in Africa, cellphone usage jumped from 10,000 to 200,000 in three years.

"It truly is revolutionary," said Peter Gbedemah, CEO of the pan-African network service provider Gateway Communications. "Previously there were just simply no telephones or there would be a few phones around,"

"Now telephones are available for the masses, which is a relatively recent innovation in Africa."

Today, roughly half of the world's population has a cellphone subscription and they are being used in a way economists say could dramatically reduce poverty and improve the quality of life for some of the world's poorest people.

In the Philippines, the Grameen Village Phone Program enables very poor women to use microcredit to buy cell phones and sell the use of the phones to people living in their villages.

Pelagia Garcia not only makes money by charging members of her community to use her cell phone but also adds extra income by renting out the use of a small antenna that improves cell phone reception. Garcia charges about 15 cents per use.

A similar program also runs in Bangladesh and plans are underway for a similar scheme in Rwanda and Uganda.

Doctors are now able to send their patients text messages to remind them to take medication and fishermen use phones to determine which market will offer them the best prices for their catch of the day.

A lack of constant electricity has not stopped people using their cell phones either, rather a cottage industry of roadside vendors charging mobile phones with car batteries, has grown.

More than a million people in Kenya now use their cell phones to complete simple financial transactions via a mobile-banking service launched by Vodafone last year. The company has started a similar enterprise in Tanzania, Afghanistan and India.

"I think there is something quite fascinating going on here," Nick Hughes, head of international payment systems for Vodafone, told CNN. "If you give people the opportunity to connect and engage with the economy, they will do so."

A lack of reliable, fixed-line telephone infrastructure is one of the main reasons why cellphones have experienced such exponential growth in emerging markets over the past few years, Gbedemah explained to CNN.

The infrastructure, such as satellite receivers and cellphone towers, needed to support mobile technology is simply much easier and cheaper to install in developing countries than the more traditional networks common to the developed world.

The installation of this new infrastructure is allowing people who live in these regions to "leapfrog" older generations of technology and in some ways become more technologically savvy than those living in the West, said Gbedemah.

"Wireless technology is far more widely used in Africa than in Europe and the United States," Gbedemah told CNN. "Technological adoption has been much more rapid in Africa in the past five years than the past 20 or 30 years in Europe."

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