Africa is the world's fastest growing mobile phone market and soon poised to have 735 million people using their phones for everything from transferring money to tracking animals for wildlife studies, an industry group said Wednesday.
Mobile penetration in Africa is now second only to Asia, according to the report by the industry group GSMA, or Groupe Speciale Mobile Association. Its report found that subscriber levels have grown by almost 20 percent for each of the past five years, and the total is expected to hit 735 million by the end of 2012.
Mobile phone users in South Africa can receive text messages anytime there's activity on their bank account or credit card. Gertrude Kitongo also uses her phone as a radio, library, mini cinema, instant messenger and bank teller.
"I use my phone for everything," exclaimed the 24-year-old Kenyan-Ugandan, who says she cherishes the link to family and friends _ from her grandmother in a Ugandan village to her former schoolmates in Zimbabwe.
When she has a spare moment, Kitongo downloads and watches movies, or catches up on her Oprah magazine subscription. She makes payments and checks her bank balance using her smart phone, and her bank sends her a text message when she receives a payment.
Many African consumers, particularly in rural areas, often lack easy access to bank branches. Earlier this year, global credit giant Visa paid $110 million for Fundamo, a South African company that helps mobile companies and banks allow their customers to instantly transfer money between phones.
"It's cheap, it's a one-on-one relationship, it's fast, it's secure," Fundamo senior vice president Reg Swart said in an interview Wednesday.
Cape Town-based Fundamo has taken mobile phone banking beyond Africa into the Middle East, Asia and the Americas, tailoring technology to work on the most sophisticated phones as well as those that can handle only text messages.
Peter Lyons, a GSMA policy expert, said that there will be more "mobile savvy citizens" like Kitongo in Africa who will demand better coverage and affordable service. Already Lyons estimated that at least 5.5 million Africans are directly or indirectly employed by the mobile industry.
GSMA called on governments to allocate more mobile broadband spectrum, and to cut taxes on operators to further spur expansion.
For all the convenience and opportunity, Kitongo questions some of the changes mobile technology has brought to social interaction. When friends get together for a coffee, she finds they're often paying more attention to their phones than to the people across the table.
When she was in high school, she said, boys used to write letters to ask her on dates. Now, she said, no one takes time to do more than dash off a text message, or SMS.
"Now, people break up by SMS," she said.