Some three-quarters of the world now has access to mobile
networks. What does this mean for those in the developing world?
From remote farms to rural health centers, one thing is
transforming how even the world's poorest people live: the mobile
Cell phone use in the developing world has climbed to nearly 5
billion mobile subscriptions, and three-quarters of the world now
has access to mobile networks. This technology is reshaping the way
individuals and communities manage their finances, monitor weather,
engage with government, and earn a living, according to the recent
World Bank Maximizing Mobile report.
"People are going from zero to 60. It is huge to go from no phone
at all to a cellphone," says Anne Nelson, international media
development specialist and adjunct professor at Columbia University.
"The rapid penetration of cellphones in developing countries is
changing lives dramatically."
Mobile devices in regions like Africa are largely limited to
voice and Short Message Service texting, but even the most basic
mobile communications can increase school attendance, facilitate
banking or cash transfers, create jobs, measure health indicators,
accelerate disaster response, and fuel citizen engagement in
governance and democracy.
For example, in Niger, access to cellphones has allowed grain
traders to compare market prices across the country, cutting the
cost of traveling to different markets and resulting in profit
improvements of nearly 30 percent for traders. In Kenya, a program
sent text messages to rural AIDS patients, reminding them to take
their antiretroviral drugs. It was found that sending these messages
was not only more affordable than in-person reminders, but those
receiving SMS messages showed higher rates of taking their meds than
those who did not receive them.
Mobile technology has also been lauded in the recent democratic
uprisings in the Middle East. In Egypt, only about 10 percent of the
population had landlines a decade ago, leaving much of the
population without any phone access at all. Today, there are 82
million mobile phones in circulation, and the numbers are constantly
The phones were "game changers" during the Arab uprisings, not
necessarily because of Twitter or Facebook - many cellphones in
Egypt, as in many rural parts of the developing world, don't have
broadband access. Instead, "for the first time, people were able to
call or text each other and say 'Hey, let's meet and go down to the
square.' That wasn't possible before," says Ms. Nelson.
Despite the implications for easing poverty, the motivation for
purchasing a mobile device is not necessarily linked to improved
social services. …