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InfoQ Homepage Articles Mobile-First in Africa: Education, Birth Registration, Banking

Mobile-First in Africa: Education, Birth Registration, Banking

Africa is quickly becoming a mobile-connected continent: mobile phones are often the only technology available, especially in places where it is hard to find power lines, fixed-line telecom infrastructure, or personal computers. This technological explosion is changing people’s lives in several ways to an even greater extent than in developed countries and opening up a wealth of new opportunities.

This series will focus on several African projects that are leveraging existing mobile technology to have a significant impact on people's lives, from education to banking, from health to conflict outburst handling, and more. Articles in this series will not only cover the available technological ground of those projects but also try and explain their impact on African society.

This InfoQ article is part of the series “Mobile-First In Africa”. You can subscribe to receive notifications via RSS.


According to a 2012 GSMA study, in the last decades mobile phones have become ubiquitous, with mobile penetration ranging from close to 90% in countries such as Denmark, Finland, Germany and the UK, to about 33% in the surveyed African countries. The research surveyed 39 developed and developing markets and found that, while penetration in developed countries is expected to slow in the next few years, it is in developing economies that a significant increase in penetration is expected, going "from 39 per cent in 2012 to 47 per cent in 2017, and will be the largest factor spurring the global growth of mobile over the next five years". Another, more recent, GSMA study foresees a 49% penetration for sub-Saharan Africa in 2020, accounting for 504 million unique subscribers, while the penetration rate of SIM connections is foreseen to rise from 65% in 2013 to 91% in 2020, for a total number of 947 million connections.

There are striking differences between developing countries and developed countries when it comes to the mobile space. One major difference is the fact that, in the former, mobile technology is often the only computing technology that is available. This makes it the perfect vehicle to reach out to people who would not be otherwise accessible.

This article is the first one in a series that will describe notable projects that are shaping the way mobile technologies are used in the developing world.

On the technological side, those projects are based on two protocols: Short Message Service (SMS) and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD). Both approaches work, but, unlike SMS messages, USSD messages create a real-time connection during a USSD session. The connection remains open, allowing a two-way exchange of a sequence of data without the latency usually experienced with SMS-based services. This makes USSD more responsive than services that use SMS. The main benefit of both SMS and USSD is that they work across all phones and network carriers, even in rural areas not covered by 3G.

This first article will focus on three diverse applications in the fields of education, birth registration, and banking.

Education: Eneza Education

In most of Africa, the main challenge in the education field is reducing the percentage of student failure, says Toni Maraviglia, CEO of Eneza Education, a mobile platform allowing students to access quizzes, mini-lessons and tips and tricks via the web, mobile web, and an SMS-based system.

“In Kenya, 6 million of the 9 million students now in primary school will fail. In rural areas, more than 2/3 fail, with more than 80% of girls failing.”

The situation is particularly complex in rural areas, where "3–5 million students are without basic school resources. Class sizes are more than 60 students per teacher." This is similar to what happens in other developing countries, says Maraviglia.

Eneza attacks student failure by offering high quality content, data resources, and a means for schools to rally around student achievement on a centralized platform.

Eneza aims to make education accessible in some of the most remote parts of the world through some of the simplest technology available there: mobile phones. Chris Asego, Eneza Education director of operations, explained how the system works for students in an interview with CEI. The sequence of steps can be summarized as follows

  1. When a user wants to do a math quiz, she texts a code.
  2. The systems texts her back with topics in the national curriculum aligned with math.
  3. The user texts the topic and is texted back with 5 multiple choice questions.
  4. After the 5th question, the system provides the user with feedback on her answers.

Besides taking tests, Eneza allows users to search Wikipedia through SMS and ask questions of a living teacher. Teachers can also see how their students are performing through their web accounts.

Schools can buy individual accounts for $180/year which give access to student data and teaching resources. Parents can get similar accounts at about $15/year. The Eneza platform also provides a space for communication between students, teachers, parents, and school leaders. As of July 2013, taking a 5 question test cost 3 shillings (about $0.03) thanks to a partnership with Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile service provider, which brought the price down from 20 shillings (about $0.23). According to Asego, Eneza makes very little from users’ participation, given Eneza’s goal is to make the service as cheap as possible for students. Therefore, they are working to develop other revenue streams, including selling data via subscription to schools and the government; stakeholders who will want to know how students are performing.

Eneza carried out an impact study in 2014 across 153 students in four schools located in Meru, Kenya. Comparison of student performance in mock KCPE exams showed that:

  1. Students in the two schools using Eneza got overall 9.5 (of a 500 maximum) points more than the control schools.
  2. One of the two schools using Eneza went from “being ranked 9th of 15 to being ranked second of 15 schools.”

In a previous impact study, carried out in 2012, a different methodology was used: “30 students were chosen at random to use Eneza 30 minutes per week” and their performance was compared to that of the average students at the same school, sharing the same curriculum and the same teachers. In this case, the study showed that:

  1. Eneza students grew their scores by 9 points more than the average student.
  2. Eneza students increased their marks more that the average student in every subject.
  3. 80% of Eneza students reported studying more than they did before Eneza.

So far, Eneza has had more than 300,000 students from over 700 schools across Kenya and over 20 schools subscribing to their data.

Birth Registration

Registering the birth of children is an important step in many countries for them to be afforded the same rights as other people and to get access to basic services such as education, health care, legal protection in courts of law, and so on. Yet, as the GSMA reports, “in some countries, as low as 21% of children are registered at birth, often due to poor communications infrastructure between rural villages and national birth registration offices.”

According to Anne Lydia Sekandi, working as public relations and communication specialist for Unicef Uganda, birth registration plays an essential role in upholding the right of every child to an identity, as established in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as its articles seven and eight.

In Uganda, one of the countries with the highest fertility rates as reported by the World Bank, the Registration Services Bureau (URSB) has prototyped, in close collaboration with Uganda Telecom and Unicef, “a Mobile Vital Records System (Mobile VRS) that enables the use of mobile phones and web based application to register birth and death.”

“Mobile VRS is an innovative prototype USSD/SMS and web-based application, intended to address the bottlenecks in a paper based system, and to play a vital role in streamlining, simplifying and decentralizing delivery of births and deaths registration services in Uganda.”

Previous to the introduction of a mobile birth registration service, birth registration was not an easy task for most Ugandans, wrote Sekandi, as is revealed by a series of factors:

  • Only about 20% of the approximately 1.5 million babies born in Uganda each year were registered before reaching the age of five.
  • Registration services, which are administered in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, were inaccessible to most Ugandans. Furthermore, registration fees coupled with other related costs, such as transport and accommodation charges, rendered them too expensive.
  • Under the old paper-based registration system, it could take several months from the time a child was registered to the time they received their birth certificates.

This picture is further confirmed in a 2012 Unicef report, which claimed that over 50 per cent of registered-at-birth children under five in Uganda do not possess a birth certificate.

The aim of Mobile VRS was to replace traditional paper forms by allowing notifiers to capture birth information digitally. This can happen through a mobile phone from the community or through a web-based application from hospitals. For non-hospital births, the system works in the following way:

  1. Notifier writes birth or death information into household registry book and sends structured data via USSD.
  2. Data is received at a central level database; information is classified and forms the basis for statistic analysis.
  3. “Unvalidated” birth and death certificates are sent to remote printers.
  4. Local registrars validate the births and deaths information. If it is correct, they sign the certificate and validate the central database record through USSD.
  5. Finally, birth and death certificates are distributed to parents through community structures.

As mentioned, this process can also be started at a hospital through a web-based client. In such cases, validation happens on the spot and a birth or death certificate is immediately issued.

The effects of the Mobile VRS program were measured in the above mentioned 2012 Unicef report, which highlighted the following points slightly more than a year after the program started:

  • Simpler, more reliable birth and death reporting and certification process, particularly the most isolated and marginalized ones.
  • The software platform on which the system is being developed is open source, allowing users to study, change, and redistribute the software, which can improve and expand its use.
  • The main advantage of such an approach comes from combining the use of innovative technologies with basic hardware, such as mobile phone handsets, which is already in possession of institutions and staff who are mandated to notify and register births. This eliminates the logistical and sustainability issues of managing hundreds of thousands of devices.

The same report lists the following results and challenges:

  • During the first year, nearly 141,000 people from over 29,000 households in six sub-counties had their births registered through the program.
  • About 95,000 short-form birth certificates were distributed in three districts (out of 112).
  • The weakness of the mobile network infrastructure and the unreliability of power supply in many parts of the country hamper the complete deployment of the program to all sub-counties and hospitals.

The success of the Mobile VRS program is further attested by the fact that, in September 2013, delegates from 10 African countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, South Africa, Zambia, Burkina Faso and Mozambique, travelled to Uganda to learn the best practices on the use of Mobile VRS.


According to a 2012 World Bank report, “more than 2.5 billion people around the world don’t have a bank account,” with women making up “a disproportionately large share of the unbanked.” This is rapidly changing, though, according to the World Bank, thanks to money transfers through mobile phones, which “are a form of increasingly popular nontraditional banking.” Mobile phone banking “has expanded to 16% of the market in Sub-Saharan Africa,” and particularly in Kenya with “68% of adults using a mobile phone for money transactions.” Other significant figures can be found in a 2012 GSMA study:

  • More that 56 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa “have opened mobile money.”
  • There were more mobile money accounts than bank accounts in Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania and Uganda.
  • There were more mobile money agent outlets than bank branches in at least 28 countries.
  • Mobile money was used for P2P transfers, bill payments, and bulk payments, including salary payments and Government-to-Person payments.


This process seemingly started in 2007, when the two largest mobile carriers in Kenya and Tanzania, Safaricom and Vodacom, launched M-Pesa, a service that allows customers to store credit on their mobile phone accounts.

M-Pesa brings significant advantages to people living in isolated areas, who do not need to carry cash around, to people without permanent bank accounts, to migrants, as well as to businessmen, who can take advantage of an almost instantaneous payment system.

M-Pesa has been offering a range of services that puts it on a par with traditional banking services. Since its inception, it has relied on a network of small retailers who register to be M-Pesa agents and act as banking agents. Customers come to these retailers and are entitled to:

  • Deposit and withdraw money.
  • Transfer money to other users, and non-registered users – see page 58 provided they have a mobile phone number.
  • Pay bills, such as electricity or water.
  • Purchase airtime.
  • Transfer money between the service and a bank account.

M-Pesa has later been extended to offer loans and savings products, including microfinance loans, as well as to pay salaries.

The way M-Pesa works is quite straightforward: when using SMS/USSD for payments, the consumer sends a payment request via an SMS text message or a USSD to a short code and a premium charge is applied to their phone bill or their online wallet. The merchant involved is informed of the payment success and can then release the paid for goods.

In countries where most people are unbanked, “airtime has become another form of currency” that can be exchanged for real money, wrote Erica Kochi, co-lead of Tech Innovation at Unicef, on TechCrunch. This means that it is possible to send airtime to someone’s phone instead of sending money, since the receiver can go and cash that time credit out with an agent that sells airtime.

The M-Pesa service has since expanded to Afghanistan, South Africa, India, and others. Beyond M-Pesa many more mobile money services have further extended the reach of mobile banking in the developing world, as Businessweek wrote:

“Today 150 mobile money services such as M-Pesa serve more than 81.8 million customers in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia; 41 new mobile money operators launched in these emerging economies over the past year, the GSMA reported.”

The M-Pesa model might even have some chance in the developed world, says Businessweek. In 2012, Barclays introduced PingIt, which allows users to send money to a phone number, i.e. to an account associated with the phone number. An additional eight banks then announced that they will be part of a consortium that “will allow customers to send payments via SMS or through an app to any other banking customer signed up to the network.” This kind of application could be appealing for developed world consumers “to settle up with friends and family—say, to pay back a bar bet or split the cost of dinner.”

An even more interesting chapter is the enabling effect that M-Pesa is having on the Kenyan entrepreneurial world, by allowing new products and companies to be spawned on top of it. One case is that of GrundFos LifeLink, a solution to deliver clean water to villages whereby villagers use M-Pesa to buy a credit which is delivered to a token which the villager can then present to a water pump.

Another example is M-KOPA, a Kenyan startup that is using mobile payments to provide poor households with affordable solar energy, reports the Wall Street Journal (paywall). This kind of entrepreneurship would not be possible without mobile phone payments, Aly Khan Satchu, who runs a Kenyan investment firm, told the WSJ.

Some other Kenyan companies that are using mobile phones to run payment-based services according to the WSJ are:

  • Kopo Kopo, which sells a product built on top of M-Pesa aimed at making it easier for small and medium business to become mobile payment merchants.
  • M-Changa, another Kenyan startup that has created a crowdfunding site that supports mobile money circuits such as M-Pesa and Airtel Money, as well as PayPal and credit cards. M-Changa customers are using the service for disparate causes, such as funding a funeral, wedding, a liver transplant, a computer lab for children, and so on.
  • ACRE (formerly Kilimo Salama), a product offered by the Syngenta Foundation in partnership with the Kenyan branch of UAP Insurance, insures small farmers and compensates crop failures via mobile payments based on satellite weather data, sometimes before the crops fail.

Next article in the series

The next article in the series will describe how mobile phones have been used in innovative ways to improve health care in Africa and the way they are building a huge low-cost distributed sensor network.

About the Author

Sergio de Simone is an iOS Independent Developer and Consultant. Sergio has been working as a software engineer for over fifteen years across a range of different projects and companies, including such different work environments as Siemens, HP, and small startups. Currently, his focus is on development for mobile platforms and related technologies.He tries to be a successful iOS independent developer and he is always on the look for challenging and new endeavours as a consultant. In his spare time he is waiting for his twins to grow up a bit so he can teach them some programming. You can find a few pointers about him on his contact page.


Africa is quickly becoming a mobile-connected continent: mobile phones are often the only technology available, especially in places where it is hard to find power lines, fixed-line telecom infrastructure, or personal computers. This technological explosion is changing people’s lives in several ways to an even greater extent than in developed countries and opening up a wealth of new opportunities.

This series will focus on several African projects that are leveraging existing mobile technology to have a significant impact on people's lives, from education to banking, from health to conflict outburst handling, and more. Articles in this series will not only cover the available technological ground of those projects but also try and explain their impact on African society.

This InfoQ article is part of the series “Mobile-First In Africa”. You can subscribe to receive notifications via RSS.

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