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Africans use mobile phones for roles beyond communicating

Fred O'Connor, IDG News Services | April 1, 2011
African mobile-phone users are increasingly turning to their devices for functions beyond making calls, said speakers at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology panel discussion on Friday.

Basing the class on mobile phones "allowed the adults to learn more quickly and learn skills for use outside the class," she said.

In addition to obtaining information, mobile phones can help business owners improve inventory and foster jobs, Aker said. Rural shop keepers can call suppliers and order goods instead of waiting for them to approach the store. The use of pre-paid phones has spawned side businesses vital to keeping the devices working, such as phone charging services and air time vendors.

Mobile carriers have also realized that handsets can fulfill many roles. In 2007 Safaricom, which offers phone service in Kenya, launched the M-Pesa mobile banking service for people to pay back microloans.

The service was expanded and now it's mainly used for transferring money, said Waceke Mbugua, M-Pesa marketing manager. Currently 90 percent of all transactions on the service are for sending and receiving money, she said.

Safaricom discovered that "if you can reduce time and make it easy, people will use it," she said.

The payment services M-Pesa offers were further expanded and people can now use their phones to buy air time, pay bills and buy items at the grocery store, said Mbugua.

M-Pesa service offers are set to grow again, but Safaricom needs third-party help first.

"The key growth area is partnerships," said Mbugua. "Partners can help add more services like bill paying."

Smartphone adoption will further the concept of a multi-faceted mobile device, said Eagle. However, he noted that the mobile application craze will most likely pass over Africa.

"You need to have a lot of money to partner with a mobile provider," he said, adding that carriers aren't interested in working with developers.

Greater business and user opportunities lie in mobile cloud computing, he said.

"You'll see growth in the mobile Web, applications that run on a browser," as African cloud computing services "are going to explode."


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