When I touched down in Lagos, Nigeria, this week, the first thing I did was buy a cell phone. The city's Saka Tinubu district hosts dozens of mobile vendors arrayed in small shops, piled high with all the major brands: Nokia, Motorola, Samsung. Among them is Belle-Vista Phone Warehouse, which styles itself as a "Blackberry Outlet." Young professionals stopped by after working hours to scoop up the Storm, the Curve, and other popular smartphones nestled in the display cases. Apple's iPhone -- ubiquitous in American cities, and about to become more so with the release of the product's much-anticipated version 4 today -- was nowhere to be seen.
The best-kept secret about Africa in the last decade is the continent's rapid and creative adoption of modern technology. African countries have for the most part leapfrogged the technologies of the late 20th century to adopt those of the early 21st en masse. There are now 10 times as many cell phones as land lines in sub-Saharan Africa, and since 2004, the region's year-over-year growth has been the highest in the world. When Nokia's billionth handset was sold in 2000, it was in Nigeria.
Africa is a multimillion-dollar mobile market, and plenty of the major technology companies, Western and otherwise, are there already. Multinational telecoms like MTN, Safaricom, and Zain are competing to cover a continent of 500 million mobile consumers, improving connectivity and dropping prices. Low-tech Chinese imports and no-contract, prepaid plans have made the technology easily accessible; Belle-Vista alone sells 500 phones a month. Nokia, which established its first African research center in Nairobi in 2008, has just unveiled a telephone that will allow consumers used to toggling between two or three devices to use multiple SIM cards in the same phone. BlackBerry has likewise responded to explosive demand by opening an office in Nigeria this year. Google, whose Android operating system is the strongest competitor to the iPhone, has had a presence on the continent since 2007 and now operates in 45 African countries, hiring and training African developers to convert its well-known suite of Web applications (Maps, News, Finance) for local use -- often over mobile devices.
These companies and their technologies are opening a line into the flattening world we've heard so much about, creating markets, enabling information access, and building relationships in ways that have changed poor countries from the bottom up. But it's hardly philanthropic work -- market leader Nokia's regional revenues were 1 billion euros in 2009, and Research In Motion, named Fortune's fastest-growing global firm in 2010, sold 1 million BlackBerries last year in South Africa alone.
So where is Apple?
The earlier-generation iPhones are, ostensibly, available on the continent -- Vodacom, a subsidiary of British Vodafone, signed a 10-country distribution deal with Apple in 2008 that included South Africa and Egypt, and the phones do work on local networks. Vodacom has also announced that it will distribute and service the iPhone4 in Africa in the near future. But for the vast majority of Africans, Apple effectively doesn't exist. The iTunes store's music offerings have never been available on the continent; African IP addresses are blocked. The iPhone goes for $1,000 at local retailers -- 10 times the current U.S. price for the same model, a big-enough markup that most iPhones on the continent are purchased abroad instead -- and because of limited bandwidth and apps availability, owning one is "like having a Maserati in traffic," according to Tayo Oviosu, CEO of Pagatech, a mobile banking firm in Nigeria.
This is a shame, considering what even inexpensive, basic cell phones have done for Africa. In poor countries, cell-phone penetration has been linked to positive economic and developmental outcomes. A 2006 study of emerging markets suggests that a 10 percent increase in mobile penetration correlates with a 0.6 percentage point increase in economic growth rates. In Africa, the trend is lifting all boats: A fisherwoman without refrigeration in the Democratic Republic of the Congo can keep her catch on the line in the water, waiting for customers to call; selling access to a mobile phone in poor or rural areas of Uganda has become a viable business model. Professionals stuck in Johannesburg traffic make deals on their BlackBerries; demand for skilled labor in the information and communication technology sector has created 400,000 jobs in Nigeria since 2000.