SMU economist Isaac M. Mbiti has seen in his native Kenya how cell phone use in Africa is booming. He and Jenny C. Aker, Tufts University, wrote about the phenomenal growth of cell phones — and their impact — in the March/April 2010 issue of the Boston Review.

Cell phones can do only so much, say the researchers.

Many Africans still struggle in poverty and still lack reliable electricity, clean drinking water, education or access to roads.

“It’s really great for a farmer to find out the price of beans in the market,” says Mbiti, who has seen the impact of the cell-phone boom firsthand while conducting research in his native Kenya. “But if a farmer can’t get the beans to market because there is no road, the information doesn’t really help. Cell phones can’t replace things you need from development, like roads and running water.”

Mbiti and Aker will publish their findings in the article “Mobile Phones and Economic Development in Africa” in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Global Development, an independent nonprofit policy research organization, has published a working version of the paper online.


Ten years ago the 170,000 residents of Zinder were barely connected to the 21st century. This mid-sized town in the eastern half of Niger had sporadic access to water and electricity, a handful of basic hotels, and very few landlines. The twelve-hour, 900 km drive to Niamey, the capital of Niger, was a communications blackout, with the exception of the few cabines telephoniques along the way.

Then, in 2003 a Celtel mobile-phone tower appeared in town, and life rapidly changed. “I can get information quickly and without moving,” a wholesaler in the local market told me. Before the tower was built, he had to travel several hours to the nearest markets via a communal taxi to buy millet or meet potential customers, and he never knew whether the person he wanted to see would be there. Now he uses his mobile phone to find the best price, communicate with buyers, and place orders.

Zinder, which has since grown to some 200,000 residents, still has no ATMs or supermarkets, and many roads to surrounding villages are made of sand or compressed dirt. But it is filled with small kiosks freshly painted in the colors of the prepaid mobile phone cards they sell.