The mobile phone recycling industry has been at the forefront of Africa’s mobile revolution over the last 20 years, transforming the continent into the next key market battleground for tech’s biggest companies.
Recycling unused mobile phones here in the UK brings direct structural and economic benefits associated with improved communications networks across the breadth of the African continent. Mobile transformation has resulted in Kenya now boasting the highest number of mobile phone payment transactions in the world, ahead of the US, South Korea and other hyper-connected economies, according to a recent market study by World Bank.
This growth in mobile economies has led to the world’s most renowned tech companies pouring into Africa hoping to tap into the vast potential being unlocked by mobile adoption facilitated by mobile recycling.
Mobile subscriptions in sub-Saharan regions are sky-rocketing, with levels forecast to reach 930 million by 2019, according to a study by Ericsson, and French network provider Orange – already active in in 17 countries throughout Africa – has plans for rapid expansion across the whole continent. Likewise Facebook, through its quasi-philanthropic Internet.org foundation, is planning to become the continent’s preeminent internet provider.
Recycling diving mobile growth
But behind all this high-profile activity is the often unglamorous world of reused tech and mobile recycling. Every year millions of mobile phones, no longer wanted by consumers in developed nations are being redistributed throughout Africa, helping to modernize local economies, connect communities and improve local education and healthcare.
Take Senegal on Africa’s west coast. Like Kenya and its aggressive e-payments uptake, Senegal is being transformed through mobile communication with the introduction of SMS auction-style food sales, which boosts productivity and local commerce. This style of mobile trade is being driven primarily by second-hand mobile devices, recycled here in Western Europe.
More mobiles means greater competition
Today’s African telecom market is now highly competitive due, in part, to the influx of affordable and reliable smart technology entering the continent and helping to break down entrenched African telecommunications monopolies, which have stifled the continent’s technological growth for years.
In 1992, the 25% of African countries which had mobile network were in a monopoly situation. Today that monopoly counts for less than 10%. Africa has quickly become a very attractive proposition for global phone operators, as these old monopolies tumble and internet-ready mobiles become more abundant.
Straight to mobile
The importance of mobile phone redistribution in Africa is heightened due to the relative lack of progress in fixed internet communication infrastructure. Internet via fixed broadband remains cripplingly underdeveloped, with African internet use (via broadband) accounting for only 5% of the world’s internet users. There are also huge imbalances to internet access within Africa itself, with South Africa alone accounting for half of the continent’s internet users and many sub-Saharan counties remaining locked out of the internet revolution. Mobile phone recycling helps more rural African communities skip a technological step by putting internet-ready mobiles straight into the pockets of local people.
The novelty of selling old mobile phones to tech recyclers may have waned in recent years, as the dusty old Nokia handsets many had buried deep in the kitchen drawer have been found and traded – it’s no longer a surprise that our old tech is still worth a huge amount elsewhere in the world. But as our tech gets ever more sophisticated and those dusty old Nokias from a decade ago are replaced in the drawer by smart technology, it may be time to revisit the profound and lasting benefits of mobile phone recycling.