Authors: Laurens Cloete and Thane Thomson (CSIR Meraka Institute)
We imagine a future where the average South African is more free than today. We gained political freedom almost two decades ago, but we have not yet achieved freedom from poverty and inequality, and many societal challenges remain. The world is more complex today than when Madiba was our first democratically elected president, and this complexity represents challenges, but also opportunities.
In the future we imagine that South Africans will have new and more affordable ways of expressing to others our opinions, our creativity and the unique ways in which we create value for ourselves and our communities. Those who have gained advantage contribute to the public good through civic action. We increasingly and more rapidly hold those in authority, whether in the private or public sphere, accountable and interact more easily and intensively with the services we receive. We respond and organise toward achieving shared visions. We are both creators and consumers of a variety of types of media and services, and are afforded freedoms - monetary and otherwise - in reward for our creations.
It is this envisaged future that mobile technologies can facilitate in South Africa.
How can such a scenario arise, and what is currently slowing our progress in reaching it? We will try answer these questions in this article.
Some sources predict that mobile data traffic in 2016 will be equivalent to 17 times the volume of the entire South African internet in 20051. What exactly is at the heart of the phenomenal uptake of mobile devices that has been seen in the past decade? At the end of the day, it is individuals who use mobile devices, whether those individuals are using them in their individual or organisational capacity. What influences whether or not an individual will make use of mobile devices?
1. Need. What underlying need does the use of a mobile device fulfil? It has to, in some way, make the person’s life better. Here is one simple way of segmenting fundamental human needs, with some examples of how people currently use mobile devices to fulfil them:
a. Certainty and peace of mind, e.g. GPS navigation,
b. Uncertainty and variety, e.g. discovering new events and media via the mobile web and social media, games on mobile devices,
c. Significance, e.g. via communication (voice, text, social media, etc.), e-publishing (blogging, etc.),
d. Connection and love, e.g. via communication,
e. Growth, e.g. acquiring new knowledge and skills via the mobile web, via communication,
f. Contribution, e.g. contributing knowledge via the mobile web and various communication media, donating to charity via premium SMS, and
g. Freedom to pursue the above-mentioned needs, e.g. mass mobilisation against undemocratic governments in North Africa.
2. Benefit. What is the specific benefit of using a mobile device, above and beyond some other means of fulfilling my needs? Here are some examples of benefits:
a. Speed - mobile devices may enable me to fulfil a need faster than by other means,
b. Effort - using a mobile to fulfil my needs may require less energy,
c. Regularity - my mobile allows me to fulfil certain needs more often or for more extended periods of time, and
d. Cost - if I use a mobile, it costs me less, financially, to fulfil certain needs.
3. Availability and operation. Can I actually get to where these devices are being sold? Can I get to where I need to buy whatever it is to keep the device going (electricity, prepaid airtime, etc.)?
4. Affordability. Can I afford to buy and use the device, both in terms of once-off cost and variable costs such as data/communication costs? Is the benefit I’m getting worth more than what I’m paying?
5. Access to network infrastructure. Can I connect? Much of the benefit in having a mobile device comes from its ability to connect to network infrastructure, whether that be local wireless networks, cellular networks, etc.
6. Usability. Is the device actually easy to use, or to learn to use?
Along all of these dimensions, there is a range of mobile and supporting technologies that are already nearly pervasively available in South Africa - the fact that we have at least 29 million2 mobile phones and 59.4 million3 connections in this country with a population of about 50 million people is testament to this fact. However, major forces are influencing the ability of South Africans to enjoy the full benefits and freedoms that mobile devices could afford them.
Whilst people might be able to derive benefit from mobile devices, they might not be able to afford the associated incremental costs. According to a working paper by the OECD4, income inequality has increased in the period of 1993 to 2008, and it does not look as though this will be remedied in the short term. South Africa has imperfect competition in the telecommunications space resulting in some of the highest costs of communication compared to other countries - making a phone call in South Africa costs nearly 9 times what it costs in India5. Network operator Cell C’s 99 cents-per-minute offering6, alongside Vodacom’s quick follow-on offer of a similar deal7, is simultaneously reassuring insofar as prices can come down, yet somewhat salutary in demonstrating a lack of differentiation between operators and thus that there is very little real competition.
Disruptive innovation could change the game completely in the mobile space. One example is the proliferation of mobile devices with the ability to communicate with each other in a peer-to-peer or mesh network fashion, or where people set up their own private large-scale wireless8 or GSM networks9 in order to facilitate ultra low-cost communication.
The high cost of mobile communication can be seen as a market failure. Market failure can be addressed through regulation, but regulation comes at a cost. Self-regulation is therefore preferable. Bringing down the cost of communication requires imagination on the part of operators in the services they provide and how they recoup investments in infrastructure and technology that they have made, and by the regulator in ensuring a level playing field.
Using mobile devices for simple everyday tasks such as communicating, listening to the radio and browsing the internet generally does not require significant amounts of skill, but using mobile devices to create value for others does. Increasingly, with the rise of the “maker movement” and “maker communities”10, people worldwide seem to be crafting devices that improve their own lives in small ways, and sometimes have the potential to grow into high-tech businesses. South Africa is currently a relatively small blip on the international maker community radar, but this does not have to be the case. The very power of mobile can be used to breed the next generation of doctors, teachers, scientists, engineers and, perhaps most importantly, entrepreneurs.
South Africa currently ranks 101st out of 142 countries in the WEF’s Networked Readiness Index 2012 report11 in terms of skills availability, which is largely due to the fact that we have not yet been able to turn around the devastating legacy of apartheid education. Fixing education will require the kind of national buy-in that we showed in hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but it will be even more difficult because educating a child takes at least 12 years and therefore requires much more endurance. Innovation related to mobile technology may well play a role in multiplying the abilities of the best teachers and allowing those of us who have benefited from a quality education to give back (see the example of Dr. Math12).
For business users, the value-add of mobile devices is clear. Always-on communication, especially while on the move and at high speed, is the primary driver of mobile device uptake in business: both in inter- and intra-business communication, and in communication with customers. Wireless devices (mainly sensors) are also being employed in many situations to improve efficiencies and improve the quality of workers’ lives, such as in industrial, manufacturing and mining environments.
According to the WEF’s Networked Readiness Index 2012 report13, South African business currently ranks 34th amongst the 142 countries surveyed in terms of its usage of technology. Admittedly, business is where most of the money is, so business will most likely be a powerful driving force in the years to come in mobile technology adoption.
With the proposed National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme, the South African government plans to employ large numbers of community healthcare workers throughout the country to facilitate better access to and quality of public healthcare. These healthcare workers will, no doubt, be equipped with some sort of mobile device to assist in data collection, diagnosis and training, and it is likely that an entire digital ecosystem will spring up around this initiative to cover patient record management, information delivery to remote healthcare administrators, healthcare supply chain management, and so on. As a result, there will be direct and indirect increases in digital literacy as these community health workers make the transition into the Knowledge Economy and, in so doing, increase the value of their labour.
Technology has the potential to shift paradigms and open up new and exciting avenues for people to create value: for themselves, to share with others, and to sell to those prepared to pay for that value. In the South African context we describe above, we envisage that - assuming innovative solutions to the challenges of affordability and education in the coming years - mobile technologies (beyond merely mobile phones) will provide the platform for the average South African to create for themselves and experience previously unheard-of freedoms and opportunities.
At Meraka14, the ICT research unit of the CSIR, we have a concerted strategic commitment to leveraging mobile technologies towards improving South Africans’ quality of life. In the short to medium term, we have a significant focus on creating value in the healthcare space. We have been active in a variety of domains considering mobile enablement, and have built significant skills and competencies. With the World Bank’s InfoDev programme15, the Department of Science and Technology and the Gauteng government’s support, we have, together with The Innovation Hub and Ungana-Afrika, established mLab SA16, which is supporting developers and entrepreneurs in developing new mobile applications and bringing them to market.
We strongly believe in the value that mobile technologies do and can create for South Africa. Please join us in our drive toward creating a better future for our country.
Laurens Cloete is the Executive Director of the CSIR Meraka Institute. Cloete holds an M.Eng (Electronics) degree from the University of Pretoria. His postgraduate studies were focussed on computer aided design of integrated circuits using a novel optimisation algorithm for very large scale CMOS integrated circuits. He plays an active role in enabling vibrant R&D collaboration with local and international research institutions and multinational companies to promote the development and application of information and communications technology for social and economic development in South Africa and Africa.
Thane Thomson is a Senior Engineer (Internet of Things Engineering Group) at the CSIR Meraka Institute. Thane holds a B.Eng, Electronic Engineering degree from the University of Pretoria and a Master's in Business Administration from the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). He has experience in general business/entrepreneurship; digital marketing; software, web and system engineering; graphic design and user experience, with a long-term focus on business management/leadership and skills development.
3 Page, Mark, Larurent Viviez, and Maria Molina. “African Mobile Observatory 2011: Driving Economic and Social Development through Mobile Services” (2011): 1-58
4 Leibbrandt, M. et al. (2010), "Trends in South African Income Distribution and Poverty since the Fall of Apartheid", OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 101, OECD Publishing, © OECD. doi:10.1787/5kmms0t7p1ms-en