It can be hard for most Americans to imagine their day without a cell phone. We’ve come to rely on them for everything from the Internet to listening to music.  But to communities in the developing countries of Sub-Saharan Africa cell phones have come to mean a lot more.

The telecommunications industry in Africa is the fastest growing in the world with more than 300 million users. And the people are taking advantage of the technology to boost everything from business, economy, and even healthcare.

A report from World Focus explains how some small business owners are thriving with the growing availability of cell phones.

“Before he had a cell phone he used to have to go to each individual dealer to find the best price for his fish.  Now all he does is he uses his cell phone.  He calls around.  He does it quickly.  Ends up getting a much better price than he did before.  He estimates that he makes 10 times more than before the time of the cell phone.” (1:35-1:53)


Now, cell phones are even allowing people in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa easy access to mobile banking.  The new service lets members send money via text.


“Let’s say for example you want to withdraw cash. Well, Somebody sends money to your cell phone.  That money sits on the cell phone number.  You then take the cell phone, hand it to one of the people at the shops.  They look at it; verify the money is there.  You enter a PIN number and they simply give you the cash.” (4:06- 4:23)


The service is even available to those in remote villages or those without a bank account, which amounts to approximately 80% of the African population according to the Global Post.

The CEO of a Ghanaian ATM manufacturer said about the leaders of the new cell phone banking,

“These guys are going to be more powerful than Google, more powerful than Microsoft, within the locality in which they operate.  Already, telecoms move more money than the banks…. These guys are going to be kings.”


Global Post

Another area that has taken advantage of the widespread use of cell phones- healthcare.

As the BBC reports, last year one program helped polio patients in Kenya last year.  A doctor from the Kenyan Health Ministry said,

“In 2006 after 21 years of absence of polio in Kenya…We used EpiSurveyor to basically control our supplies, monitor which areas needed to be vaccinated and the quick flow of information helped us in achieving very good results.”


BBC

Cell phones are even being used to combat the sale of counterfeit medications. One application allows consumers to text a medication’s label code to the drug manufacturer to ensure the legitimacy of the medication.  The UN World Health Organization estimates that 30% of prescriptions are counterfeit in developing countries.

But there are still limitations on the growth of cell phone usage.

IT News Africa reports how politically appointed regulators are having a negative impact on the industry. According to Safaricom’s chief executive officer Michael Joseph,

“In South Africa you have a regulator who keeps on interfering with the market all the time. As a result you have a huge market where there are only three operators… the situation had made the country to have the highest call charges in the continent.”


ITNEWS

Other concerns include local conflict in many countries and high taxes on users and operators.

Still, industry leaders are excited about mobile phones in Africa, seeing it as a chance to leapfrog technology and introduce more people to the Internet.