Mobile Internet Comes To Africa In A Big Way

Young people are driving the change using their phones to text, listen to music — even watching high-resolution videos. Silicon Valley has noticed and sees a big opportunity.

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Of all the places on the planet where the mobile phone market is growing, the fastest growth is in Africa. That continent is seeing close to 20 percent growth in the mobile market per year. Silicon Valley is taking notice. NPR's Aarti Shahani found American companies active in Dakar, Senegal.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: It's a bright, sunny morning in downtown Dakar. The roads are dusty. The streets are full, and I flag down three friendly-looking teenage girls.

REZINA GERBA: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAHANI: They're hovering around a phone. It's a smartphone, not a flip phone. And I ask Rezina Gerba what kinds of things she likes to do with it. She gives me the universal look for duh.

GERBA: (Through translator) Like everybody else, I send text messages. I make calls. I listen to music.

SHAHANI: And how many songs does she have? Her friends respond in unison.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAHANI: 653 - not that anyone's counting. I asked them to play me one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRUNK IN LOVE")

SHAHANI: It's Beyonce's "Drunk in Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRUNK IN LOVE")

BEYONCE: I've been drinking. I've been drinking.

SHAHANI: It's the exact same song I've been playing on repeat since I left San Francisco. And in that moment it hits me, while the cabs of Dakar are more beat up than the ones back home, the cabbies are texting while driving. While the wireless signal is way more shoddy, the kids are downloading songs whenever they're connected. Our appetite for digital life is basically the same.

I turn the corner into cell phone alley. The entrance is dingy, cluttered with a big statue of a busty woman on bike...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Classy.

SHAHANI: ...And a peddler selling diamond-studded iPhone cases.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Bling bling.

SHAHANI: It looks nothing like the Apple Store, but the narrow stalls squished side-by-side are stocked with the latest phones. They're not all coming in through official channels. Vendors here fly to Europe, pack suitcases and bring them back. There's also a lot of Chinese knockoffs that go for 70 bucks U.S. - about what a teacher here makes every week. I stop at one stall and greet the vendor.

Salaam-alaikum.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wa-alaikum-salaam.

SHAHANI: Aziz Abdou Salam Sy has been in phones for years, and he tries to hustle me. We all know technology loses value as soon as you buy it. But smartphones are so hot, he says, they make a great investment, just like gold.

AZIZ ABDOU SALAM SY: (Through translator) If you have extra cash and you don't want to burn through it, you can buy a phone and store your money that way. Then if you need cash, you can always sell it again.

SHAHANI: The mobile explosion in sub-Saharan Africa came as a surprise. In the 1990s, Western aid groups talked about communal computing - village cyber cafes where businessmen could work by day and village children could Web-surf by night. But it turns out smartphones are a lot cheaper than desktops. And now nearly 1 in 3 people has a mobile phone. Silicon Valley has noticed.

TIDJANE DEME: We are at 12 Boulevard Djily Mbaye, in front of the building that hosts the Google office.

SHAHANI: Tidjane Deme is the head of it. After studying abroad and running a failed startup, the Dakar native returned home to launch this Google outpost. In the early days, his colleagues in Mountain View, Calif., would kind of hang up on him.

DEME: You say you are from Dakar? We have an office there? Let me check.

SHAHANI: In Silicon Valley, tech companies have gated campuses. Here?

DEME: IBM, HP.

SHAHANI: The scene is so small, they're literally next-door neighbors. Deme shuts the door, sits on a giant beanbag chair and lays out his theory about mobile growth. The majority of young people in Africa live in cities now.

DEME: They are really cosmopolitan. They're watching premier league soccer games from the U.S. They're watching Hollywood blockbusters or the last Beyonce clip.

SHAHANI: Yes, they are.

DEME: But they're also watching comedy, film, TV series made by a local creator. So they really consume an interesting mix of local and international content. And internet should not just be about half of their lives. It should be about all their life.

SHAHANI: That means they need way more local content, especially video content. Yes, yes - low-grade SMS texting matters. But much like the rest of the world, Africans like to see themselves online, too. This requires a much better internet connection. So the mobile operators have to step up.

DEME: We are more likely to leap front in the digital age if we go straight for high-quality internet bandwidth, rather than if we go then and build crappy internet as we have crappy roads.

SHAHANI: Google data shows there's pent-up demand. So Deme says each company investing in mobile stands to cash in big. His theory has a provocative edge. I ask him, is it wrong of you to be pushing some internet connectivity strategy where people who do not have clean drinking water are paying for digital life? Is there something unethical about that?

DEME: We should definitely not be telling people you're too poor to get the benefits of internet. I think that would be ethically wrong.

SHAHANI: A growing number of local artists agree with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JOURNAL RAPPE")

SHAHANI: "Journal Rappe" is an edgy news show - kind of like the "Daily Show," except they rap the news. And they're capitalizing on the mobile economy. For years and years, host Xuman Mactarfal says he'd see corrupt politicians squandering tax money.

XUMAN MACTARFAL: They're buying luxury cars and without even hiding. All of that was on TV. It was put on TV.

SHAHANI: When he and his partner tried to get on TV, producers shut the door. So the rappers aired their pilot on YouTube and that very same day...

MACTARFAL: By 7 p.m., TV called, like, yeah, guys, we got your contract.

SHAHANI: So now they're on TV and online. And when Google makes money from ads, they get their cut, much like Beyonce. Aarti Shahani, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRUNK IN LOVE")

BEYONCE: It be all night in love.

INSKEEP: Who knows, maybe part of the mobile phone explosion involves the availability of radio.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRUNK IN LOVE")

BEYONCE: ...In love. It be all night in love.

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