Companies are trying to attract more smartphone users across Africa. But there are risks

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ACCRA, Ghana — In the bustling kitchen of her home in Ghana’s capital, Anita Akpeere prepared fried rice while her phone buzzed incessantly with restaurant orders. “I don’t think I could work without a phone in my line of business,” she said as she juggled requests for her signature dish, a traditional fermented dumpling.

Internet-enabled phones have revolutionized many lives globally, but in sub-Saharan Africa, where infrastructure and public services are among the world’s least developed, they play an especially transformative role. Jenny Aker, a professor at Tufts University, notes that technology in Africa often leaps over infrastructural gaps, such as providing mobile money to those without bank accounts.

Digital Divide

Despite the growing mobile internet coverage on the continent, only 25% of adults in sub-Saharan Africa have access, according to Claire Sibthorpe of the GSMA, a U.K.-based mobile phone lobbying group. The primary barrier is cost, with the cheapest smartphone costing up to 95% of the monthly salary for the poorest 20% of the population.

Other obstacles include lower-than-average literacy rates and the lack of services in many of the continent’s approximately 2,000 languages. “If you buy a car, it’s because you can drive it,” said Alain Capo-Chichi, CEO of CERCO Group, which has developed a smartphone that operates via voice command in 50 African languages, including Yoruba, Swahili, and Wolof.

Bridging the Gap

Uniti Networks, a new company in Ghana, aims to bridge the digital gap by offering financing to make smartphones more affordable and coaching users on navigating its platform of apps. Cyril Fianyo, a 64-year-old farmer from Ghana’s Volta region, registered with Uniti, paying a deposit of 340 Ghanaian Cedis (about $25) for a smartphone, with the remaining 910 Cedis ($66) payable in installments. Through Uniti, Fianyo learned to use apps like Cocoa Link, which provides agricultural advice and weather updates, helping him optimize his farming practices.

Broader Impact

Uniti Networks, which has launched in five Ghanaian communities with 650 participants, aims to reach 100,000 users within five years. CEO Kami Dar believes the mobile internet can address challenges such as accessing healthcare. However, Jenny Aker cautions that while mobile phones have potential, there’s limited evidence that paid health or agriculture apps are significantly benefiting users. She highlights that beneficial impacts are mainly limited to reminders for medication or vaccinations.

Market Challenges

A dearth of useful apps and content is another reason more Africans aren’t buying smartphones, says Capo-Chichi. Uniti Networks has faced hurdles too. In a pilot program for cocoa farmers’ pensions, high engagement didn’t translate to user-friendliness, necessitating interface improvements.

Real-World Benefits

For some, Uniti’s platform is making a difference. Mawufemor Vitor, a church secretary, uses a health app to track her menstrual cycle and prevent pregnancy. Fianyo, the farmer, has found information on herbal medicine. Nonetheless, Aker emphasizes that mobile phones cannot substitute for investment in public services and infrastructure, expressing concerns about data privacy with private tech providers and governments.

Future Prospects

Uniti Networks, a for-profit business, only features apps that align with its mission of impact, focusing on health, education, finance, and agriculture. Dar has rejected approaches from companies like gambling firms, asserting a commitment to ethical tech use.

Despite the challenges, Aker sees immense potential in mobile technology, especially in education and insurance, which could significantly impact literacy and provide financial protection against climate change and conflict.

Back in Fianyo’s fields, his new smartphone has sparked interest. “This is something I would like to be part of,” said neighboring farmer Godsway Kwamigah, eyeing the potential benefits of digital inclusion.

As Ghana and other sub-Saharan nations grapple with the digital divide, initiatives like Uniti Networks highlight both the transformative potential and the significant challenges of bringing more people online. While mobile technology offers promising solutions, comprehensive investment in public services and infrastructure remains crucial for sustainable development. – AP