This morning, I was surprised to discover that Mozambique’s government had told private mobile phone companies to shut off text messaging services after discovering that rioters were using texts to mobilize. While it certainly stopped the rioters from communicating, it froze crucial communication for the people who may have found themselves in danger at the riot.
This just goes to show the power of organizing through mobile phone communication in Africa. Although it was used for violence in the case of Mozambique, it has the capacity to do a lot of social good. Many local African activists use SMS to organize peaceful protests, and organizations use it to disseminate emergency alerts during times of crisis and conflict.
Mobile phones are a big deal in Africa. Because computers are so expensive, many Africans rely on affordable mobile technology for communication. According to Mashable, between 2003 and 2008, Africa had the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world. More than one-third of Africa has a mobile plan, with some areas reaching two-thirds market penetration. And Nokia says they plan on growing their African market by 300 million new subscribers — that’s more than what they’ll get from India and China together.
Aid and development organizations in Africa have taken advantage of these figures by using mobile phone technology as a tool for life-saving aid efforts and health and agricultural education. The Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Worker program in Uganda, for example, sends out critical farming information to poor African smallholders. Cell-Life Aftercare, a joint project between two South African universities, remotely monitors 15 to 20 patients per heath care worker, provide supplemental medical updates. And Ushahidi.com allows users to map areas of conflict by submitting a tip via their mobile phones.
It’s clear that mobile phone technology plays a huge role in connecting Africans — not just on a personal level, but on an organizing and educational level, too. Allowing the government to shut down this technology at random would render these innovative programs and positive networks unreliable for millions of Africans.