Mobile Communications

East Africa: Technological Reciprocity or Originality?

As a region with lots of potential in technology and innovation, East Africa has still not entirely walked away from its tradition of reciprocity and mutual sharing. Yet how has this impacted ongoing efforts at using technology at the village or rural level? And is this modernized reciprocity an asset towards technological advancement?

From the onset, East African rural communities have adopted modernism to the same level they have maintained their own cultural identities. In fact, the rates at which rural communities have embraced ICT especially mobile telephony services have amazed many in the world.

However, it is hard and sometimes paradoxical for many observers to talk about technology, especially ICT in East Africa. This is because the region, like the rest of the continent, suffers from acute lack of electricity and other infrastructural foundations favorable to creating vibrant information communications and a thriving technological base.

According to recent statistics by iHub Research, East Africa is experiencing the greatest growth in mobile telephony in the continent today. If the statistics of the three most significant economies in the region are anything to go by, Kenya has a subscriber base of 30.4 million from her estimated population of 44 million. Out of her 48.2 million inhabitants, Tanzania has a subscription of 27.3 million. On the other hand, from Uganda’s population of 34 million, the country enjoys a subscriber base of 18.3 million. The statistics are proof enough that the region has heavily adopted mobile telephony as a technology over a very short period of time.

In 1999, there were only 300,000 landlines in Kenya. In the initial stages upon the introduction of mobile telephony in East Africa especially in Kenya, the cell phone was less of a communication gadget and more of a symbol of power, prestige and elitism. This did not however last long, as by 2003, a cell phone that had been introduced at $700 had gone down to just $100. This marked the penetration of the device to the rural areas albeit to those few who would still afford it.

Today, the same device costs below $20, becoming just another addition to the normal toolkit that any worker, mechanic, farmer, retailer or tailor should have. This means that in addition to playing the pivotal role of improving communications, the cell phone has graduated into being a very powerful economic and financial tool for users both in villages and in urban areas.

Ethan Zuckerman, a respected Harvard Researcher and blogger is among those who have witnessed these sharp technological developments in the region. When he visited Kenya in 2010, he blogged that “Kenya matters because it’s one of the places where the future of technology is coming into focus, where a generation of creative people are building the future, one experiment at a time.”

This was just three years after the mobile telephony giant and market leader in the region, Safaricom Ltd had introduced its flagship money transfer service, M-Pesa, a SMS-based technology that allows the user to load money and send it to another mobile phone. By 2012, a record 17 million users had been registered. And today, all the subscribers have access to the service and have since been using other competitors including Airtel and Orange for the same service.

African Reciprocity and Sharing

For years there has been a heated debate about how easy it is to remove the person from the village and vice versa. This is only likely to continue because the traditional cultural inclinations of reciprocity and sharing have contributed immensely to the growth of mobile money transfer services in the region.

Sons and daughters of the village have been supporting rural family members from their urban residences for a long time in Africa. But previously, the only available method of sending money was via drivers and hand delivery. This was not only risky but cumbersome. Now with the introduction of mobile transfer these methods have become part of the past. 

Before the mobile money transfer services were introduced, the majority of people in rural areas did not have access to formal financial services. Mobile banking has therefore been crucial to the economic advancement of rural individuals as well as raising the standards of living overall.

Proactive Efforts in the Use of Technology

Saving and borrowing money had obviously been possible in East Africa before the advent of mobile technology. But now borrowing, lending and saving has become more prevalent and in a more formalized way. In East Africa today, community-based groups have been proactively involved in using mobile telephony in their efforts for seeking credit and finance for their small scale businesses and farming activities.

Access to microloans for business and agricultural activities is now easier and faster thanks to mobile technology. With just the touch of a button, you are able to check your loan status using your phone. This has been adopted by numerous local communities and microfinance institutions. 

Once a farmer has applied for a loan with a micro financial institution, the loan is credited on his phone and he can withdraw it through mobile transfer services. The monthly or daily remitting and servicing of the loan is done using the same phone by crediting the lender’s account on the agreed frequencies.

All anyone needs is to join a community group, apply for a loan and have it credited on the phone. This had certainly not been possible just a few years ago and provides more economic independence in disadvantaged areas.


Daniel Muraga is an experienced online writer and communications professional based in Kenya


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Daniel Muraga

Daniel Muraga is an experienced online writer and communications professional based in Kenya.

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