Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

How mobile broadband can transform Africa

By Hamadoun Toure, Special to CNN
updated 7:10 AM EST, Mon February 27, 2012
Two boys play with a cellular phone in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia.
Two boys play with a cellular phone in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia.
  • Mobile broadband can help Africa reach Millennium Development Goals, says Hamadoun Touré
  • He argues that broadband can teach children information technology skills
  • Mobile technology is transforming healthcare and banking, Touré says

Editor's note: Dr Hamadoun Touré is secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union -- the U.N.'s specialized agency for information and communication technologies.

(CNN) -- In the next five years, there are likely to be as many mobile cellular subscriptions as there are people on this planet. By 2020, pundits predict more than 50 billion connected devices.

With seven billion people's needs to serve, information and communications technologies (ICTs) represent the single most powerful channel we have ever had to reach out to others, wherever they may live, whatever their circumstances. They also represent our best hope of accelerating progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the target date of 2015.

Hamadoun Toure
Hamadoun Toure

Can Africa reach its 2015 MDGs? If countries embrace the unique power of mobile broadband technology, I believe many have a good chance.

The eight MDGs cannot be separated. If you combat disease, you also reduce child mortality; if you give every child a primary education, you promote gender equality. It is because these goals are interlinked that broadband is so important.

If we classify the MDGs into three broad areas -- education, health, and the environment -- we see that mobile broadband has a key role to play in each.

Read more: Phone journalism gives a voice to India's rural poor

Millennium Development Goals
  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV and AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Develop a Global Partnership for Development

It offers a solution for providing education in under-served areas. Around 90% of children in the developing world are enrolled in primary school, but in some regions -- notably sub-Saharan Africa -- up to 30% of children drop out before their final primary year. Broadband can better engage children, equipping them with valuable ICT skills and opening a window on the world's information resources, in a multitude of languages.

Technology can transform healthcare. From simple SMS reminders for vaccinations or anti-retroviral treatments, to grassroots information gathering on demographics and diseases, to mobile information repositories for personal health records, cellphones are becoming a key cornerstone of health programs in a growing number of African countries.

Every year, more than half a million women die as a result of complications in pregnancy and childbirth. The tragedy is that the majority of these deaths are preventable -- yet in Africa, fewer than half of all births are attended by a midwife or skilled health worker.

While there is no substitute for the physical presence of a healthcare professional, broadband is helping train community field workers, while providing expectant mothers and their extended families with simple advice that protects health -- and lives.

The MDG on ensuring environmental sustainability spans a wide range of targets, from the provision of safe drinking water and basic sanitation, to protecting biodiversity and improving the lives of slum-dwellers.

In many of these areas, broadband will be a vital link.

For example, so-called "smart" electricity grids make it easier for locally generated electricity (including from renewable sources) to be integrated, stored and shared as demand fluctuates.

Broadband can also help local farmers and fishermen by delivering weather forecasts directly to their mobile phones.
Hamadoun Touré

Broadband can also help local farmers and fishermen by delivering weather forecasts directly to their mobile phones and providing information on sustainable farming techniques.

Read more: Mobiles of future will get under our skin

The way we work is also being changed by broadband. Innovative projects are improving the lives of slum-dwellers -- for example in Kenya -- through providing access to employment and training. Last year at ITU Telecom World 2011, the International Telecommunication Union awarded a prize to a young entrepreneur who developed an education platform for working children, enabling them to use smartphones to improve their literacy, numeracy and general knowledge while they travel to work on public transport vehicles equipped with low-cost WiFi repeaters.

Broadband gives small businesses the opportunity to broaden their customer base and reduce their overheads through e-commerce platforms. And it will support advanced financial services for consumers, building on the outstanding success of the mPesa mobile banking model, an excellent example of innovation coming directly out of Africa to solve African problems.

The eighth and final MDG is "developing a global partnership for development." It is, perhaps, the most fundamental of all the goals, because it enables progress towards all the other goals.

Developing such a partnership is a basic element of our work at ITU. Because we understand the incredible potential of broadband, we launched the Broadband Commission for Digital Development to help move broadband to the top of the political agenda.

This multi-stakeholder commission comprises over 50 top-level global leaders, and has defined a vision for accelerating the deployment of broadband networks worldwide. It has also established four critical targets that we believe all countries should to strive to attain by 2015:

Target 1: Making broadband policy universal. By 2015, all countries should have a national broadband plan or strategy or include broadband in their universal access/service definitions.

Target 2: Making broadband affordable. By 2015, entry-level broadband services should cost less than 5% of average monthly income.

Target 3: Connecting homes to broadband. By 2015, 40% of households in developing countries should have internet access.

Target 4: Getting people online. By 2015, internet user penetration should reach 60% worldwide, 50% in developing countries and 15% in least-developed countries.

We have only three years to go. But it is highly significant that among all the MDG targets the most advanced is the one involving ICTs. Let's capitalize on that and use Africa's near-ubiquitous mobile coverage to break old infrastructure bottlenecks and short-circuit the traditional development cycle.

Ubiquitous mobile broadband is a big idea whose time has come.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hamadoun Touré.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:05 PM EST, Sun February 23, 2014
Mobile World Congress offered up robotic balls, GPS walking sticks and more than its fair share of unexpected uses for digital technology.
updated 6:34 AM EST, Thu February 28, 2013
With many smartphone users groaning about battery performance, scientists are racing to design phones that never need to be charged.
updated 8:44 AM EST, Wed February 27, 2013
Nokia's wireless charging device is a pillow for your phone so that
3D screens, flamenco dancers and endless batteries: all the latest innovations being unveiled at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
updated 5:34 AM EST, Wed February 27, 2013
Yahoo's decision to curtail remote working has stirred dismay at a time when many companies are striving to enable telecommuting.
updated 11:30 AM EST, Tue February 26, 2013
The industry has repeatedly promised a "mobile advertising tipping point," but mobile advertising is yet to come of age.
updated 3:04 PM EST, Tue February 26, 2013
The 'phablet' seems to be MWC 2013's must-have item. This is the Asus Fonepad: A seven inch tablet with mobile phone capabilities. Samsung launched a similar product at the show called the Galaxy Note 8.0.
Didn't we tell you that the lines between smartphones and tablets are blurred? Case in point: the Asus Fonepad, a 7-inch tablet that's also a phone.
updated 12:25 PM EST, Tue February 26, 2013
In the not-too-distant future, you'll receive a full diagnosis and cure from your smartphone before you have even realized you're unwell.
updated 1:02 PM EST, Mon February 25, 2013
The next generation is just a few weeks away for the world's hottest smartphone without a piece of fruit on it.
updated 11:32 AM EST, Mon February 25, 2013
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout explores Barcelona, Spain -- home of the Mobile World Congress 2013 -- using only her smartphone.
updated 7:41 AM EST, Fri February 22, 2013
As CNN heads to Mobile World Congress 2013, we're asking readers what features they want to see on the phones of the future.
updated 11:32 AM EST, Thu February 28, 2013
Is it time to start carrying two mobile phones? At least one manufacturer is hoping more people might soon be relying on multiple mobiles.
updated 7:19 PM EST, Mon February 25, 2013
In the future we will have screens not just in the palm of our hands, but all around us, according to Google's Director of Android User Experience.
updated 9:23 AM EST, Tue February 26, 2013
Wearing spectacles that record our every move could be the end of privacy as we know it, says internet commentator Andrew Keen.