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Africa in Flux: How Urbanization and Digital Technology are Changing a Continent

BY Lisa Goldman | Monday, September 24 2012

SMS in Kampala, Ungada (photo: Future Atlas/Flickr )

Rapid urbanization and mobile phones are converging to drive major changes in Africa. With the continent poised to become primarily urban and with mobile penetration passing 80 percent in many countries, Africans are now consuming their media primarily via their phones. This, according to a fascinating study published last week, has "major implications for cities, politics, and civil society" in the continent.

Commissioned by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED),Bigger Cities, Smaller Screens: Urbanization, Mobile Phones, and Digital Media Trends in Africa is written by media analyst Adam Clayton Powell III. Basing most of his information on primary research, interviews and United Nations reports, Clayton Powell outlines the nature of the changes and Africa is undergoing and explains how these changes are affecting every aspect of society. Many of the shifts he describes are counter-intuitive to a casual Africa watcher.

By 2020, for example, the sub Saharan region will be dotted with mega cities. Lagos will surpass Cairo, which currently has a population of 12.5 million, as the continent's most populous city. The middle class is already larger than India's, which has roughly the same population as Africa at 1 billion. With the cost of mobile phones and calling rates declining rapidly, hand held devices have become extremely common. In many countries, mobile penetration tops 80 percent — even where the majority of people live on $1 per day. "Access to information," says one of the people quoted in this report, "has become as vital as water and electricity." Media consumption used to be for the urban elite, but now the poorest of the poor living in remote areas can access a wide variety of news sources via inexpensive mobile phones.

"The convergence of African urbanization, technological change and digital media are driving major changes. Perhaps most dramatic, cellphones and other mobile devices, already in widespread use, could become a nearly universal platform, not only for telephony but also for audio and video information and entertainment: Guy Berger, UNESCO’s director of freedom of expression and media development and a former newspaper editor and leader of the South African National Editors Forum, predicted that mobile devices will surpass broadcast receivers as the continent’s primary medium."

Clayton Powell quotes Gabrielle Gauthey, executive vice president of Alcatel Lucent, who says,

“In 2000, you had about five million mobile phones in Africa,” Gauthey said. “Today, we have about 500 million. In 2015, we expect it to be 800 million. Already, 20 to 30 percent of these phones are Internet enabled. In 2015, it will be 80 percent.”

He goes on to cite several compelling examples of the ways in which technological innovation is having a profound effect on the quality of life for ordinary Africans.

In rural Uganda, teachers are distributing Kindles loaded with books written by local authors and analysts to their students. Not only do Kindles make it easy to access books that are sold only in cities, but they last for a week with only a single electrical charge — a huge boon where there is no regular or easy access to electricity.

In Nigeria, Voice of America (VOA) has piloted a program that offers free medical advice in response to symptoms described by users via voice or text.

Audiences that used to consume audio programs on radio or television are now accessing them via their mobile phones, says Steve Ferri, web director of VOA Africa.

“Africans are listening to their phones for 20-minute programs,” said Ferri. “No one in America would do this. You really have to walk away from your American media experience.”

Google and its subsidiary YouTube are offering customized news services, with local universities establishing their own channels to broadcast lectures that allow students to complete their degrees remotely, accessing their "classes" via their mobile phones. In Sudan, the national radio service "...used mobile technology as a tool to measure and engage with its listeners."

More hard evidence that mobile phones are now essential in Africa: In 2010 VOA noted larger demand for its content via mobile phones than via computers.

The keys to our understanding of Africa are outdated, writes Clayton Powell; our perceptions are misleading because they are skewed by stereotypes and incorrect information. Africa is an innovation driven, urbanizing continent with a population that is on the move — from village to city and from poverty to the lower rungs of the middle class. And technology — particularly mobile technology — is playing an enormous role in driving this change.

The major drawback to this otherwise excellent study is the noticeable emphasis placed on U.S. sources — particularly Voice of America. It would have been good to hear more from local news and information content creators. Some information about how new technology has been used to negative effect would also have been a welcome addition to what feels like an overly positive assessment of the situation in a region that certainly has its share of troubles. But overall this is an informative, highly recommended study on a region that should be covered more thoroughly — particularly by U.S. media outlets.