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Namibia, mobile phone

The mobile phone: 
an engine for development

eLearning is the central focus of a conference in Namibia that is supported by Germany and the European Union.

A good 650 million people in Africa have a mobile phone. In other words, two thirds of the continent’s adult population now have access to information technology, according to a recent study commissioned by the World Bank and the African Development Bank entitled The Transformational Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Africa. For people in many regions, mobile phones are the only means of accessing commerce, information, education and politics.

At the eLearning Africa 2013 conference, which took place for the eighth time at the end of May in Namibia, around 1,500 participants discussed just how fundamentally the mobile revolution is transforming learning, teaching and the acquisition of skills in Africa and which opportunities it therefore offers. Funded in part by the European Union and Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the event made it quite clear that Africa is facing huge changes and that a climate of innovation, entrepreneurship and lively, inspiring energy prevails on the continent.

“And there is good reason for this,” explains the current eLearning Africa Report 2012. “Economic growth rates have increased amid a global recession, and the rate of foreign investment has soared.” More children in Africa go to school than ever before, fewer children die before their fifth birthday, and the number of women who can read and write is rising all the time. Nonetheless, there is still a great deal that needs to be done: people continue to live in conditions of poverty, corruption, war and piracy. A good 300 million people have no access to clean water, and just 36% of the population have adequate sanitary facilities.

This is precisely why experts are pinning their hopes on eLearning. In principle, the new information technologies mean that all people can have access to education and information, without factors such as the remoteness of their location posing an obstacle. In the eLearning Report, which reveals for the first time how new technologies are being used in Africa to improve training and education right across the continent, around three out of four of those surveyed state that they use information and communication technologies for classroom teaching and learning, thereby improving the quality of teaching. The rapid increase in the number of mobile phone users throughout Africa is reflected in the 48% of respondents who use their phones for teaching purposes. Computers are available to 36% of teachers and students in educational institutions.

Although most of the participants in the survey value the teaching potential offered by modern technologies, the report also highlights the obstacles to their application. The educational experts surveyed complained time and time again that there are too few fast Internet connections, that financial resources are insufficient, that the supply of electricity is problematic in many places and that there is a lack of qualified personnel. This is all set to change as mobile phone technology continues its triumphant advance through Africa, for modern technologies are bringing economic prosperity to many African countries. According to the World Bank study, information technology has a key impact on agriculture, on the way climate change is dealt with, on education, on government services, on the financial industry and on the healthcare sector. On average, IT is therefore responsible for 7% of Africa’s gross domestic product. This figure is high by the standards of other regions around the world. Because mobile phones are often the only way of accessing the outside world, more business is done on them by people in Africa. One frequently cited example is M-Pesa, a Kenyan financial service that allows money to be transferred by text message.

According to the World Bank study, however, many other areas apart from business also profit from mobile phone technology. This is because it eliminates one of the biggest hurdles to development on the African continent: the lack of information. In the healthcare sector, for example, where knowledge needs to be communicated to as many people as possible, the MedAfrica Internet platform is designed to help people recognize diseases and assess how dangerous they are. The app provides advice on all aspects of first aid, as well as other useful information, such as where to find the nearest hospital. Mothers can ask questions about their children’s development and are given tips about diet and nutrition. In future, people should be able to use the app to determine whether a drug is a fake and to find individual doctors. “Such information may appear banal to people in developed information societies. For people who have no access to newspapers, books and television, it can mean the difference between life and death,” explains the MedAfrica.org website.

The World Bank report also praises DrumNet, an information system based on text messaging. Two thirds of all people in Africa live off the land, yet inefficient infrastructure means that farmers are not aware of market prices, for example, and have problems reaching markets. In turn, traders do not know which products the farmers are offering nor in which quantities they are available. DrumNet allows farmers to announce how much they have grown and harvested, and traders can inform them what they are buying and selling. This means that producers find out what price they can expect, and traders know how much they can sell. Furthermore, the system serves as a payment platform, which in turn is of interest to banks: DrumNet lets them see whether a farmer is a reliable supplier – which could also allow him or her to be given cheaper credit.

Sybille Wilhelm

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