Businesses Aim to Get More Africans Using Smartphones

23 May 2024

Modern smart phones are still seen as a curiosity in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Experts believe mobile internet service is an important tool for economic growth in places such as Ghana. However, only about 25 percent of adults in the area south of the Sahara Desert have a tool that provides internet service.

Anita Akpeere is one person who uses an internet-connected smart mobile phone in her food business in Ghana's capital, Accra. She makes rice and dumplings, a kind of local food. Her phone alerts her when a new order comes in.

Anita Akpeere, who uses her mobile phone to run her business, stands inside her restaurant in Accra, Ghana, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/ Misper Apawu)
Anita Akpeere, who uses her mobile phone to run her business, stands inside her restaurant in Accra, Ghana, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/ Misper Apawu)

Claire Sibthorpe is head of digital inclusion at the Britain-based mobile-phone manufacturers group GSMA. She said the cost of new phones is the main barrier to more Africans getting internet service. The lowest-priced smart phones still cost about 95 percent of monthly pay for the poorest 20 percent of the population.

Jenny Aker is a professor at Tufts University near Boston, Massachusetts. She said mobile technology is more important in Africa than in more developed parts of the world. She said the small programs that run on smart phones, called apps, are able to overcome a lack of infrastructure. That is why more people in Africa need phones that connect to the internet. She said people without bank accounts use their phones to send and receive mobile money. Other people can use apps that help with farming. Still others use apps that help them learn languages.

Uniti Networks has a "super app" that permits smart phone users in poor places to use lots of other apps. The business also has a payment plan that permits people in Ghana who do not have much money to get smart phones. Cyril Fianyo is a farmer who uses the plan. He is a 64-year-old farmer in the country's eastern Volta area. He paid about $25 to get his phone and will pay the remaining $66 in regular payments. The phone has an app called Cocoa Link that helps him learn planting methods for his cocoa crop.

In the past, Fianyo used his intuition to decide when to plant. However, now he thinks Cocoa Link will look at the upcoming weather and tell him the right time to plant. He hopes it will lead to a bigger crop.

Kami Dar is chief of Uniti Networks. He said mobile phones could also improve Africa's health care system. So far, he said, Uniti has 650 participants in its program that permits regular payments over time. The goal is to have 100,000 people taking part within five years.

Uniti, however, will only reach its customer goal if more people in Ghana learn how to use smart phones. But there is both a language barrier and a technology barrier. Although many people in Ghana speak English, some cannot read the language. In addition, many people do not know how to operate a smart phone. They will have to learn to read English and learn how to use the phone.

The barriers mean many people decide a smart phone is not worth the cost.

Alain Capo-Chichi is trying to fix that problem. He is the head of CERCO Group, a company that developed a smart phone that works with only voice commands. "If you buy a car, it's because you can drive it." The voice control, he said, will permit more people to "drive" their smart phone. His system supports 50 African languages, including Swahili, Yoruba and Wolof.

Aker, the professor near Boston, said it is unclear at this time how many apps will be able to improve life in Africa. She has looked at health and farming apps. She said the health apps mostly tell people when to take medicine or advise them of the need to be vaccinated. The farming apps, she noted, do not clearly show evidence of producing more productive crops.

Capo-Chichi said one reason people are unsure about investing in smart phones is the lack of useful apps.

Dar from Uniti Networks said app makers are trying to do better. He gave the example of an app that helps cocoa farmers save money for retirement. At first, the app was hard to use, so many farmers needed help or decided it was not worth their time. But the company that provided the savings service fixed some of the problems.

Over time, the apps improve. One example is a health app that helps women follow their reproductive, or menstrual, cycle to avoid pregnancy. Another app helps people find medicinal plants.

Aker said more investment in public services is needed for Africa. But she also worried about a dependence on smart phones and said some people could lose personal data to criminals or hackers.

The expert noted that companies that make apps can only do well if they have more users. Companies that are creating payment plans for Africans can only make money if they get more customers.

In addition, Aker noted the phones can still make a difference for some. She noted that the United Nations says over 700 million people around the world are illiterate, meaning they cannot read or write any language. Aker said smart phones can help people learn to read and write.

However, curiosity may still be the biggest driver of smart phone sales, especially if the cost is not so high.

Back in Fianyo's fields, his new smartphone has attracted interest. "This is something I would like to be part of," said neighboring farmer Godsway Kwamigah.

I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Anna Matteo.

Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by The Associated Press.


Words in This Story

curiosity –n. the state of mind of being interested in something and wanting to learn more about it

inclusion –n. the act of making a group out of many different things

infrastructure –n. things like roads, bridges, electricity lines and other structures that are associated with civilization

intuition –n. a sense of knowing something without proof or evidence

participant –n. a person who takes part in an activity with a group

hacker –n. a person who gets inside a computer system to take information or to cause damage

attract –v. to cause someone to become interested in something

We want to hear from you. Do you have a smart phone? How does it help you?