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.”