Africa is the Final Market
A farmer picks up his mobile phone to text message his contact in the market. He wants to know what the prices are today and if the time is right to sell his products. He also needs to find out where the lorry driver is and when he might show up to pick up his goods. And although the farmer spends a considerable percentage of his income on the phone credit needed to send his SMS messages its better than a three-day walk to meet a buyer who isn’t there or who doesn’t want to buy his products. The mobile phone is the centerpiece of this story. It has become the poster child example of the entire ICT4D agenda and builds on the feeling that ICTs improve people’s lives. Mobile phones and access to information are now central to a sector tasked with improving the livelihood of marginalized communities around the world. Few are in a position to question the growing desire for the wholesale implementation of ICTs everywhere.
But what we fail to recognize is the origins of our own ideas, the technologies we use and the power structures we inadvertently introduce. What was once an innocent effort by many to bridge a growing digital divide has turned into a ‘sure-fire’ grant proposal and lucrative business in the process. Mobile communication is spreading in Africa as if it were the most addictive drug. Houses in rural communities are being turned into sponsored billboards with the inhabitants dependent on both the phone credit they sell and consume. Sometimes spending up to 40% of their income on mobile phone credit valued in seconds (a mobile phone unit is measured in 59 seconds). As a result, the ICT4D community is witnessing an explosion of projects while the ‘telcos’ (African telecom companies) fight ruthlessly for market share. As NGOs donate computers and mobile phones the telecom companies give sim cards away for free and spend enormous sums promoting their complex calling structures. Each side organizes massive campaigns needed to entice the user, getting them to register for their services and make loyal to their brand of calling. In turn, African governments depend on the NGOs for foreign aid while the telecom companies have become Africa’s most important taxpayer. This means few in a position of power are willing to question their motives, means or tactics. In this mad rush little space is given to local actors who maintain their own vision for the future. This scenario leaves open an empty space for critical questions.
Multinationals can be seen across Africa using their NGO proxies to facilitate market research. Some might argue this ‘stealth’ approach is used to sneak in under the political and social radar. As an NGO you can conduct surveys and use mobile phones as a tool for collecting and profiling users. Free mobile phone credit is enough to get even the most disenfranchised person to participate. In this business mobile phone numbers are traded in the tens of thousands. NGOs answer only to the government bureaucracy, structures they otherwise help design and now make dependent. As an NGO you ask for permission and coordinate your activities with the very people who rely on your funds.
Corporations are eager to participate and somewhere along the way have merged with nonprofits to form new hybrids. It is not uncommon to hear someone from Google giving a presentation where they switch between corporate and nonprofit activities with ease. Sometimes even getting confused as to which project falls under the corporate or nonprofit umbrella (as seen at the 2008 Picnic in Amsterdam and the 2009 World Water Forum in Turkey) resulting in a constant barrage of disclaimers reaffirming that ‘all statements made are unofficial.’ Most people talk about where they think the Google rep is at the moment, or what might have been discussed at the last Grameen meeting, so forget the CIA agents of the past.
Let’s be clear, the interest of these multinationals and NGOs is strictly Business. Conjuring romantic notions of the Wild West, Africa is increasingly seen as the world’s last frontier. The quick uptake in mobile and Internet sends a clear signal to organizations the world over and Africa presents an untapped market opportunity with a billion potential customers. At the same time the development aid sector is under increasing pressure and the success of ICTs offer some cool comfort and relief in an otherwise increasingly hostile world. It is not uncommon to find corporate representatives dining with NGO staff at posh hotel chains. Informal pool bar chats about the potential to connect rural Africa with smart technologies and networked solutions. Often these discussions unknowingly build the case for ‘needed’ hardware and software produced elsewhere, the foreign glue that makes the market both visible and viable for business. As Geert Lovink explains, ‘Africa is the final market.’