Happy birthday to the mobile phone!

It was exactly 40 years ago today that Martin Cooper, a Motorola executive and researcher, stood on a Manhattan sidewalk and called his rival, Dr Joel S. Engel of Bell Laboratories, to announce that he’d successfully beaten him to creating the first-ever mobile telephone.

“Joel”, he said, according to a 2003 BBC interview, “I’m calling you from a ‘real’ cellular telephone – a portable, handheld telephone.”

By Alasdair Mackinnon

The device he used weighed around a kilogramme, and by the time the first commercial service started in 1983, it sold at today’s equivalent of US$7,000. As the technology has been refined – with a basic mobile telephone costing as little as $10 and weighing only 80g – the number of mobile telephone users has increased exponentially, with global penetration reaching 91% late in 2012. Rates in Africa, the fastest-growing mobile market, are believed to have passed 80% this quarter.

With smartphones also on the rise on the Continent, it has been predicted that Africa will become the first “post-PC continent”. Low investment in network infrastructure in the past has led to the adoption of the mobile as the standard connective tool. Now, as users worldwide increasingly turn towards tablets and smartphones, Africans are not only in a position to benefit from this circumstance, but to be pioneers. A host of innovative functions and applications have evolved around the mobile phone, while operators, eager to drive up penetration, offer prepaid call rates as low as R0.02 in South Africa.

One of the most successful initiatives is Kenya’s M-Pesa banking system. It allows people to deposit balances on their SIM card, which can then be sent as payment using SMS technology. M-Pesa works equally as well on a basic mobile as on a smartphone. As a branchless technology in which traditional banks have little involvement and which is accessible at all times and in the remotest areas, M-Pesa has proven flexible enough to become ubiquitous in Kenya – and has spread to Tanzania, South Africa, Afghanistan, and India, forcing traditional banks to innovate and provide their own similar services.

As Mark Kaigwa, a partner at Afrinnovator and one of the plenary speakers at the eLearning Africa Conference 2013, has written, “When I take a cab, I pay my cab driver with M-Pesa, and I buy my groceries with M-Pesa mobile. Whether it’s school fees or collecting salaries, some people prefer M-Pesa […] This has to be the single biggest innovation success, and it’s achieved worldwide recognition, awards, and acclaim.”

It is a tribute to the strength of African innovation that text-messaging technology, seen in its early days as a clumsy, unnecessary function that would never catch on, has been used so successfully to support Kenyan commerce.

The mobile phone has become a multi-functional device. Using the same basic technologies, Ghana’s mPedigree counters the problem of counterfeit pharmaceuticals by allowing people to discover by text whether a box of drugs has been adulterated, while across the Continent, Tanzanian farmers are able to crowdsource advice on infected plants. In Kenya, a platform called iCow provides farmers with tailored and timely alerts, and in South Africa, the MXit IM-based social network delivers Yoza, a series of short, phone-based stories. Indeed, Yoza’s project leader, Steve Vosloo, has described the mobile as “the Kindle of Africa”.

The mobile phone has certainly had a wide-reaching effect on all aspects of education by delivering vital information both online and away from the Internet. Prof Dr Matondo Kiese Fernandes, who will talk about the integration of mobiles into university education at eLearning Africa, points out that, “… the mobile phone is already used by practically 100% of students at the big Angolan universities. With such high penetration in educational spheres, it is no surprise that this year’s conference offers so many presentations on themes in the field mLearning, such as app development and mFarming.

As for the mobile phone itself, we can only wait and see what the next 40 years will bring.


  1. Priscilla

    I agree with you Eric – I think mobiles haven’t come forward at all from being just call and text sending devices. These new smartphones are like those penknives that have a blade, a bottle-opener, a pair of scissors, a toothpick and tweezers in them. They do everything, just not very well.

  2. Sarah Herzog

    Innovative thinking like that used to create m-pesa is much needed in Africa, once smartphones become the norm throughout the continent, then Africa will have the opportunity to share their innovative brilliance with the rest of the world.

  3. Western countries could learn a lot from so called “third-world countries”, whilst the western world is racing to invent new technology and create smaller and more complex devices, it’s lost focus on innovative uses for existing technology.

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