An article in the Daily Yomiuri today, cribbed from the Times of London, talks about the explosion in mobile phones in Africa. In 2000 there were 8 million subscribers on the continent, now there are more than 100 million -- one for every nine people. 25% of those are in South Africa, but places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo have a million (compared to just 10,000 land lines), and Chad has gone from 10,000 to 200,000 in three years.
One of the bedrock premises of the mobile business is that it makes people more productive. In the case of Africa, it's not just mobile v. fixed, it's mobile v. nothing. Here's a chance to test that thesis. Will Africa's economic growth show a big boost in the next few years? It's hard to imagine the answer to that would be no.
And there's the human element -- the need to communicate is powerful. Analysts underestimated the demand for mobile phones in Africa, probably because of both the human element and the obvious business needs.
Of course, communications isn't Africa's only problem -- lack of infrastructure, poor education, infectious disease, and weak governance are all very serious issues. But I'm an optimist. The mobile phone has the ability to help overcome some of these other obstacles, if people demonstrate the initiative, including increasing citizen monitoring of governments, which has to be good (a la the Phillipines).
The Media Lab $100 laptop is a great thing, don't get me wrong. But my money is on the mobile phone as the Great Enabler in Africa, at least over the next one to two decades.