Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo


Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

The job gives Holmes a perspective on how mobile commerce is evolving in Africa, where a less-is-more engineering aesthetic can be found everywhere. For example, farmers and fisherman use SMS to check on market prices in different villages.

And in Tanzania, IBM engineers designed a pharmaceutical supply-chain management system entirely using text messaging. The system keeps track of drug inventory levels in rural clinics, and allows health-care planners to get medicine into the field when it’s needed, with less opportunity for pilferage or other losses.

Since low-end mobile phones are quite inexpensive, many Africans have two or three of them, each powered by a different carrier. They’ll reach for the one with the cheapest service for whatever call they happen to be making, be it local, mobile, or long-distance.

Another variation on that theme involves phones that contain two or three of the Subscriber Identity Module chips that link a handset with a mobile service operator. These “multi-SIM” phones allow users to switch carriers without having to own more than one phone.

While low-end handsets make up most of the African market today, “smart phones,” especially those using the Android operating system, are growing in popularity, especially with the recent introduction of lower-cost models like the Ideos, from the Chinese maker Huawei, which was recently selling in Kenya for $80.

Nigeria already has smart-phone adoption rates closing in on 20 percent, and the figure is expected to reach 50 percent in a few years, Holmes says. This guarantees that more sophisticated mobile commercial applications will appear alongside the widespread SMS-based systems.

Other parts of the African telecommunications scene are also impressive, such as the widespread use of mobile phones for simple person-to-person money transfers, something that has yet to take off in the United States.

“Some people seem to think that Africa doesn’t want to innovate, but all I have seen is a great spirit and a tremendous desire to experiment and build an ecosystem that will benefit everyone,” Holmes says. “Africa has very specific characteristics, and one of the most important is a passion to get things done with what they have in hand.”

2 comments. Share your thoughts »

Credit: Courtesy of

Tagged: Business, Business Impact, The Future of the Office

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives


Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me