Africa is the fastest growing market for cell phone use. EPROM, currently operating in Kenya, is program in cooperation with MIT to enable Kenyans to develop cell phone applications specifically for African users. In Ghana, where I have a home, mobile phones are really hot. In fact it is wise not to flash them around because they are a popular target for theft. Even so they make a huge difference to local entrepreneurs, and are popular both for business and for social reasons. The practices of Ghana Telecom landlines, with frequent, erratic, and unitemized billing, make landlines too expensive and highly impractical both for business and for social use. The mobility of the cell phone is critical for doing business in Ghana.

EPROM, part of the Program for Developmental Entrepreneurship within the MIT Design Laboratory, aims to foster mobile phone-related research and entrepreneurship. Key activities include:

  • the development of new applications for mobile phone users worldwide
  • academic research using mobile phones
  • the creation of a widely applicable mobile phone programming curriculum

Today’s mobile phones are designed to meet Western needs. Subscribers in developing countries, however, now represent the majority of mobile phone users worldwide. We believe the adoption of new technologies and services within this vast, emerging market will drive innovation and help shape the future of the mobile phone.

Why Africa?
Today’s mobile phones are designed to meet Western needs. Subscribers in developing countries, however, now represent the majority of 2.4 billion mobile phone users worldwide. Africa, with Kenya at its forefront, is currently the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world.
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A large part of this boost comes from the innovative use of mobile phone technology by local entrepreneurs. In contrast to their use in the developed world, mobile phones in Africa are used for a wide variety of tasks, from sending money to family members to buying a fish from the market. Kenyan business men, farmers, and laborers are finding new uses for a tool thought of as simply a voice communication device in the West, and are coming up with original methods for solving their own problems. For example, contract laborers can now provide their phone numbers to potential employers and move on, instead of having to wait for hours at a workplace in case a job arises. Access to market information through mobile phones also provides rural communities with invaluable information about centers of business; many African fishermen check the local fish market prices on their phones to determine where to bring the day’s catch. The Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange (Kace), now provides crop growers with up-to-date commodity information via text message (sms). This allows farmers to access daily fruit and vegetable prices from a dozen markets, and many have quadrupled their earnings because they have access to information about potential buyers and prices before making the often arduous journey into urban centers to sell their produce. The community payphone, another innovation unique to the developing world, has helped bring mobile phone usage to the poorest areas of Africa. These payphones are owned and operated by entrepreneurs who buy airtime from the network and subsequently sell it to local people who don’t own phones themselves.