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Mobile Learning in South Africa, challenges and opportunities.

Dr. Adele Botha, Principal Researcher at Meraka Institute, CSIR, Pretoria South Africa

Africa is an emerging continent in more ways than economic growth. With 70% of the population in Africa under the age of 30 and about 20% between 15 and 24, is the world’s youngest continent, as the proportion of youth among the region’s total population is higher than in any other continent and sub-Saharan Africa is “the one remaining region of the world where the population is set to double or treble in the next 40 years”  Within the youth dynamic of Africa, a steady increase in school enrollment and a slight shrink in the gender gap over the last 20 years have been observed. The challenge for education in general and lifelong learning in Africa is set to be of critical importance if Africa is to participate as an emerging economy on the world stage.

Mobiles are arguably the most ubiquitous modern technology with around 75% of the world population, amounting to 6 billion people, connect and communicate. Africa has, with over 620 million mobile connections as of September 2011, become the second largest mobile market after Asia [1]. Emerging mobile services, applications and products are believed to have a catalytic effect on economic growth. An early study carried out by The Law and Consulting Group, that used data from 92 countries between 2003 and 1980 [2]found that the increase of 10 mobile subscriptions per 100 people raised the Gross Domestic Product by 0,6%. This is in line with a similar, more recent study by Quiang and Rossotto [3]that found that a 10% increase in mobile penetration in developing countries was correlated to a 0,8% increase in domestic growth. Research additionally points towards a greater foreign investment [4, 5]. In addition it touches and changes the lives of people as seen from examples of fishing villages in India [6], crop markets in Uganda [7], and grain markets in Niger [8].

Popular press has expressed this sentiment and remarks on the ability that mobile phone offer to “leapfrog [9]” in that it has enabled developing countries to skip the fixed-line technology of the 20th century and move straight to the mobile technology of the 21st. In truth the developing world has embarked on a different adoption tangent than the developed world and is “more mobile [10]” The use of networked personal computers being extended to the mobile platform for the added dimension of mobility and contextual access depicts the trajectory that is evident in Europe, the Pacific Rim and North America. Here access and participation in the information age was predominantly gained through desktop computing and added value to legacy communication systems as expanded mobile interactions. Issues such as transferability of experience between different devices and platforms have arisen due to the multitude of semi single purpose devices in use. Africa and other developing regions are, however, contradicting this conventional thinking and interacting with the information society from a mobile centric perspective. As such Mobile is often not only a first technology but also often an only interactive ICT. Mobile cellular technology is extended with desktop capabilities where the functionalities of the technology are not able to support the activities of the user. This alternative access to the information age challenges the concept of a digital divide with that of a digital difference [11, 12].

Nigeria at 89 343 017 has the highest number of mobile subscriptions which make up 14% of the continents subscriptions. Possibly more meaningful is the fact that South Africa, although contributing only 10% of continent wide subscriptions has reached an over 100% penetration rate. In addition, the 3G mobile infrastructure in South Africa is an on-going investment and had a 49% penetration in 2011, covering 52% of the population. Due to significant investments, the 3G network  is expected to reach 85% of the population by 2013 [1]. South Africa is internationally ranked as 61st and 3rd in Africa after Tunisia and Mauritius in an evaluation of Global Network Readiness. Amongst others, these factors contribute to position South Africa very favorably as a predictive environment of what would be the evolution of mobile in the rest of Africa.

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