The African continent may be short of basic infrastructure, but there are high expectations for the use of mobile information and communication technologies. The USSD standard is now being embraced by app developers to create new mobile solutions.

Low Bandwidth Technology Helping to Develop Mobile Use in Africa

The value of mobile communications in Africa is no longer a matter for debate. In a study presented at the ForumOxford: Mobile Apps and Technologies Conference 2013, held at the University of Oxford, UK,  mobile technology expert Rudy de Waele highlighted the main areas where mobile is taking off on the African continent. He pointed out that mobile penetration varies widely from region to region: while 3G is now available in 31 countries, usage is still highly fragmented, with the north and south of the continent showing an average 70% penetrationwhile east and sub-Saharan Africa are lagging far behind. However, increasing use of the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) protocol could be set to change the mobile landscape. With USSD, mobile connections require only low bandwidth and data is stored in the Cloud. A standard mobile phone is therefore able to send and receive information without an Internet connection, and can also provide a number of useful functions.

USSD standard: access to social networking, geolocation and m-commerce

While the most common mobile solutions in Africa are still payments and funds transfer, large numbers of Africans are also very keen on using messaging services and listening to music on their device. Accordingly, explained de Waele, many app developers have been focusing on the USSD standard, which they see as a practical means to respond to expectations raised by mobile technology. BiNu is one example. This interactive social platform based in Sydney, Australia provides a range of solutions for mass-market ‘feature phones’ – i.e. low-end GSM devices which do not have all the functions of a smartphone. A large number of providers of messaging services, geolocation, music downloads, plus games and videos have launched solutions on to the markets in Africa, taking advantage of the widespread use of the USSD standard. As a direct consequence, by 2010 the total value of the mobile market for the southern region of Africa alone had already reached $14 billion.

Growing focus on e-education

Quite apart from such commercial applications, mobile technology is now also playing a huge role in education. Although there are many initiatives afoot to equip schoolchildren with tablets, the mobile phone is already seen as a kind of e-reader. Fully 95.3% of those responding to a poll of readers quoted byRudy de Waele agreed that a phone can be used as a tool for learning. Mobile is now being used in spontaneous ways, it has a fun side, and above all it is becoming accessible to ever more people, which means that  it can now help to spread literacy on a large scale to a young and ever-growing population, underlined Rudy de Waele.



By Pierre-Marie Mateo