Kenya: From the ‘phone booth’ to widespread mobile adoption in Silicon Savannah

I had my first mobile phone in 1999, a metallic blue Motorola M3888. Its street name was “phone booth” because it was the cheapest mobile phone available, even though it was a luxury. It cost 14,000KES ($160) – a gift from my father bought during a Safaricom Valentine’s Day special. I could make calls - for 40KES (50 cents) per minute, and send SMS, and that was it; I loved that phone!

Today, you can buy a phone for as little as 1,000KES ($12) and make a call for 1KES ($0.01) per minute. 14,000KES will get you two Android phones - which, like many handsets, enable you to do far more than just send and receive SMS and make calls.

In 1999, few realised how significant mobile software development would be to the Kenyan economy; as an income driver, employment option, and as part of our financial infrastructure. Kenya now has 26 million mobile subscribers. According to the GSMA – the global trade body for mobile network operators – the number of African mobile phone users has grown by nearly 20% every year since 2007; and Kenya is at the heart of this technology boom. It is home to M-Pesa; a well-known innovation that has defied the old order and created a ripple effect and a new wave of innovation in financial services. Today, 50% of Kenya's GDP moves through mobile money, and M-Pesa reportedly handles $20 million a day in mobile money transactions.

Nicknamed ‘Silicon Savannah’, Kenya’s IT initiatives have already propelled the country to the forefront of the industry in Africa. In 2007, Kenya set its Vision 2030, incorporating IT development as a pillar of its economic growth. While in some parts of the world the emphasis has been on equipping mobile phones with everything you might find on your computer, in Kenya the focus has been on developing new technology that can enhance everyday living. Whether it is moving money without a bank account, reporting incidences of corruption or sharing health education to new mothers; this innovation is being made possible using even the most basic mobile phone on the market. A thriving industry has grown up here, and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, around the development and sale of mobile apps which allow you to do everything from finding a hair salon to chatting with friends to taking a photo and sharing it via email or social media - critically, most for the feature phone market.

In 2011, it was reported that Africa had 500 million mobile phones; 485 million of which were non-smartphones. There is a great demand in Africa for tools and apps for the non-smartphone user. This population live, on average, in areas that lack mobile (internet) connectivity or have access to mobile connectivity but can't afford it. SMS remains a powerful platform in these communities. In the coming years we’ll see the development of cheaper, more robust smartphones; hopefully reduced pricing for mobile data; and as a consequent rise in the uptake of high-end mobile communications. For rural and low-income populations, however, SMS will continue to be a critical platform. I’m excited to work with our users to support them engage communities, manage staff and gather and visualize information in increasingly sophisticated ways, through FrontlineSMS. o/

Kenya is the heart of technology in Africa and where FrontlineSMS strategically set up its offices in Nairobi. Being new to Mobile for Development (M4D), myself, I am fortunate to join one of the best teams in mobile software engineering whose core mission is to lower the barrier to communication while serving a wide base of users, reaching over 40,000 users in 135 countries. I joined the team mid-last year as the Community Support Manager in our Nairobi Office, where our in-house software developer team is based. We are housed close to the iHub, alongside other similar organizations such as UshahidiKopo KopoPraekelt Foundation and M-Farm among others.

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In the last eight months I’ve learned a lot about ICT4D, as a newcomer to the field - from colleagues, of course, but most of all from our users. Our users have taught me how essential SMS is and how versatile FrontlineSMS is through the innovative ways they have adopted it in their work.

We are always interested to share your stories and photos. If you would like to share your use of FrontlineSMS, in the form of a blog post or case study, and have it featured on our website, please get in touch with me at We have already seen great value in sharing user experiences empowering other users to see the potential of SMS in their work.

Read the guest blogs we have posted by clicking here. We would also love to receive photos of your team using FrontlineSMS in the office or better yet, in the field. We are also currently collecting photos of our users in celebration of FrontlineSMSat7 sharing their message to the world on how they are using FrontlineSMS. Join in and share yours to! We will post it on facebook and even tweet about your work!

Share your user story and empower others in the process o/. I look forward to hearing from you!