Back in 1999 the BBC made a programme for the OU on the ways in which cellphone technology was being harnessed to get phones to people in the townships of South Africa. One of the contributors, Peter Dzingwa, ran a ‘phoneshop’ – a shipping container furnished with phones connected to the mobile network and used as payphones – and was full of enthusiasm:
"I think cellphones are what Africa has been waiting for....(South Africa) came to a standstill for 40 years. There was no development there, a lot of guns going off....now the cellphone has actually made them lift those 40 years and be smack right in the middle of everybody's communication system, which I think is a fantastic thing." 
The statistics and the stories coming from countries not just in Africa but across the developing world since then seem to suggest that his enthusiasm was fully justified. Indeed, some of the statistics are quite dramatic. Subscriber growth rates in developing countries have been more than 25% a year, and half the world’s population now use a mobile phone .
Mobile phones have taken off in developing countries in a way that other new technologies haven’t. Personal computer ownership doesn’t yet seem to be having much of impact, with even the much-publicised ‘One Laptop Per Child’ programme struggling to make a significant impact beyond one or two countries where the government have backed national programmes.
There are many reasons behind the relative success of mobile phones, including details like the fact that you don’t need to be literate in English or another major language – you can talk in your own language – but more generally this is a technology that people have been able to adapt to their own needs. Phones are ‘general purpose’ tools that their owners use however they want to and for whatever purposes suits them.
Hannah Beardon, an independent consultant on development, discussed this in a recent interview for the Open University:
This isn’t the whole story, though. Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and, as Hannah explains, the introduction of new technologies changes things
A version of this post also appears on the Open University open2.net blog
T324, Keeping ahead in ICT,
Environment, Development and International Studies curriculum
ICT and Computing curriculum
1 From Breaking down barriers, and Affordable technologies, available from iTunesU
2 ID21 Insights 69, September 2007. Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex
3 Extract from interview about mobile phones for development, recorded for T324, Keeping Ahead in ICT, full interview
4 Extract from interview about ICT for development, recorded for T324, Keeping Ahead in ICT, full interview