One reason mobile phones have a considerably greater impact in poor countries is because other information-based services are so weak. Only about one-quarter of people in sub-Saharan Africa have an account at a financial institution—let alone a Visa or American Express card. Mobile payments have leapfrogged the rollout of plastic payment systems across the region. As many as 60 percent of Kenyans use their mobile phone for financial transactions, and almost three times as many people in the country use mobile banking than have a debit or credit card.
There are limits to the mobile revolution, even in Africa. A phone can’t make up for electricity networks that cover a fraction of the population, schools that frequently graduate the illiterate, or legal systems that are corrupt or incompetent. And though mobile technology may have raised incomes in Africa by a few percentage points, GDP per capita in the U.S. is still only about 1,600 percent of the average in the sub-Saharan region. Even so, it’s worth remembering that while elegant styling and fancy tablets have made Apple successful, it’s the cheap Nokias (NOK) and the text-based mobile money systems that have really changed the world.