“More Mobile Phones in Uganda than Light Bulbs” An Interview with The Next Web & The Story Behind the Quote

In August this year I had been invited to speak at the Media Evolution’s Conference also known as #TheConf. I’d recommend you look at my fellow speaker Tricia Wang’s coverage of her talk here and her insightful travel piece on the city of Malmö here.

As part of the experience there I got to meet and hang out with former Techcrunch writer and now European Editor of The Next Web Robin Wauters. He shot this interview below where I quoted a phrase that  for all intents and purposes went “viral” with thousands of Twitter mentions, comments and side conversations taking place when the conversation went live and in the weeks after. Not because it was groundbreakingly original or new but rather because it piqued people’s curiosity and was succinct enough to get a conversation going. It even made it onto the NASDAQ…well their blog at least.

The “…more mobile phones in Uganda than light bulbs.” line isn’t a new phrase. I’ve been asked a number of times online and offline where it came from and I’ll try to give some background to the genesis of the phrase and the different viewpoints over the past 4 years that have been said on it.

Dara Kerr of cNet initially made mention of it in her 2009 piece For Uganda’s poor, a cellular connection.

In Uganda, only 10 percent of the population has electricity, the vast majority doesn’t have microwave ovens, computers, or televisions. People don’t have access to the latest information on disease outbreaks, weather forecasts, or soccer championships. But this may soon change.

More than a third of Uganda’s population, about 10 million people, own a cell phone, and many more have access to these phones through family members and neighbours. Cell phones can be found in every desolate corner of the countryside, where 85 percent of the country’s residents live. With the dire need to be connected, people go to great lengths to use cell phones, charging them with car batteries or solar chargers.

In a place where cell phones could outnumber light bulbs, several nonprofits have begun thinking that the best way to reach the country’s poor and get them much needed information is through their phones.

Following this, several people began to weigh in on the piece. One person to mention (and question its credibility) was Paul Boutin of VentureBeat in a weekly review post from July 2009. From this, several other discussions started to take place in July 2009. Jon Gosier of Appfrica, based in Kampala, Uganda took the statistic and decided to do some of to crunch some of the numbers at the time:

Let’s do the math…

In 2007 only between 5% and 6% of Ugandans had electricity (demand is growing at roughly 6% per year). Meanwhile in 2007, 52% had landlines while mobile subscriptions stood at 13% (a number skewed by the fact that it’s common to have a several cellphones, all mostly pre-paid).

Demand is much higher in the mobile space than in electricity although demand is obviously correlated.

Note: My using the word ‘subscriptions’ is a bit of a misnomer as virtually all cellpone usage here is pre-paid. Here subscriber really refers more to ‘people who have purchased a SIM card’

So with the growth at the time being between 5-6% and growth pegged at approximately 6% per year and mobile penetration at 13%  in 2009 we can look forward to what’s happened in recent years. The infographic below from *iHub_ Research on the state of mobile technology in Uganda was released a year ago and shows a snapshot of where things were at the time.

The highlights being that mobile penetration had increased as of December 2010’s statistic seen below to 38% with 12.8 million subscribers, a number that I’m certain has since grown.

Mobile-Infographic-Uganda-iHub-Research-Large

That said, for the light bulb phrase to be relevant and accurate one would need to now map out not only teledensity (fixed line and mobile penetration) but also look at the size of the populace with access to mobile phones and see how the numbers compare between past and present. In addition, the analysis of broader “access to electricity” statistics would be necessary especially factoring in the place of renewable energy and the social enterprise players all equipping rural areas with solar lanterns and lighting fixtures. Reason being this would effectively raise the “number of light bulbs” across the board.

So for the quote it’s certainly listed as probable but inconclusive at best given these uncertainties. Interestingly, Ugandan energy company Umeme is also getting set to file for IPO on the Ugandan Securities Exchange at this very time. As a regulated monopoly they are expected to see some growth but there’s a variety of viewpoints on the company and it’s challenges amidst this. A good place to start would be to find Ryan Hoover’s breakdown here.

All in all I’m open to hearing more on this and seeing some sense made of the more ambiguous numbers. Fair to say that given the haziness and lack of clarity for 2012 and beyond it’s safe to share the quote but with a fair bit of context. The initial premise doesn’t seem to be in contention, it’s the rate of growth and hard numbers that will tell the full story.

Most recently one of the most popular uses of the light bulb catchphrase was Praekelt’s recent Did You Know video on Africa’s mobile generation.

What say you? Is it a statistic and does it count in this day and age? Anything else to consider? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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