Africa Calling

When I landed this past week in the O-R-Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, I had been flying a cumulative 20 hours since leaving Seattle. After clearing customs into South Africa, I made a beeline to the restroom to freshen up. On the wall of the spotless restroom was the sign photographed to the right.

I haven’t yet seen a sign like that in SeaTac Airport, but in South Africa it’s not surprising given how ubiquitous cell phones and text messaging have become.

The breathless adoption of mobile telephony on the African continent–with South Africa leading the charge — means that I learn as much about the power of mobile adoption and use when I travel there as I do when I am walking around the hyper-connected city of Seattle.

The African continent has impressed me again and again the last seven years with their creative utilization of mobile–which in large part inspired the first course I taught for the MCDM, Emerging Markets in Digital Media. Today, the African market is growing to include producers as well as consumers. According to Erik Hersman, co-founder of Ushahidi and the voice behind the blog White African, the African continent is in a great position to produce relevant technology moving forward.


Because African manufacturers understand the market here is for the masses who will purchase products if they are durable, affordable, meet their needs, and highly functional.

A current US Bank television commercial in the United States crows about a mobile phone application that allows you to check your account balance via your cell phone—while in Kenya they aren’t just checking their balance, they are transferring the equivalent of  $650 Million each month mobile to mobile, with an average transfer of $33. The United States is positively old school by comparison.  Sure, many smart phones in the USA may have more sophisticated features than the phones in Kenya that transfer such a staggering amount of money, but our systems and habits are so entrenched that it hampers our creativity in using mobile phones for certain tasks.

It’s no longer the story of “What the West can Provide the Rest,” when it comes to technology but rather, “What the Rest can Teach the West.” And perhaps one day I will be able to rate the bathrooms at SeaTac just as I can in Johannesburg.

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