By Ken Banks
Talk is good, or so they say. But too much talk and not enough action isn’t. After working for the past twelve years in the technology-for-development (ICT4D) field, I’m beginning to feel that talking is pretty much all it does, and that everything we could have said has, by now, been said. Actions speak louder than words. This is my call to action.
But first, back to the beginning. It was late 2002 that I got my first taste of the fledgling world of mobiles for development (m4d), focusing initially on Africa. Back then people’s general reaction to my work was one of surprise. “Do they have mobile phones in Africa? Can Africans afford mobile phones? Do they have coverage?” While back then it was unclear whether mobile technology did have true development potential, today it is a surprise to meet anyone who thinks they don’t (Banks and Burge 2004). It’s been quite a turnaround.
Of course, a lot has happened over those 12 years. Driven by the private sector – not the aid industry – mobile coverage and services have grown exponentially, call costs have come down (although still not enough for some people) and handsets are a fraction of their original price. The real game changer, however, was the introduction of pre-pay. The pay-as-you-go model opened up access to the vast numbers of people previously excluded because they lacked a fixed address, a bank account or a credit history – or all three. Across Africa this model still accounts for the vast majority of connections. According to the GSMA’s Mobile for Development Intelligence (MDI) portal, it remains over 90 per cent, an almost mirror image of much of the so-called developed world (where contract-based service plans predominate) (GSMA Intelligence).