Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Africa, Mobile Phones and Refugees

Boise's Congolese/Rwandan
Refugee Community
This week a friend texted to ask advice on an appropriate welcome gift to present newly arriving Syrian refugees in Boise, Idaho. Without hesitation I said a cheap mobile phone with prepaid minutes. Why?  We are active in the refugee community and over the past three years have lost new refugees in the city. We have had kids waiting for moms that we can't find.  We have missed numerous doctor appointments because of language barriers and a lack of communications.  We have learned the value of even the simplest and cheapest of mobile phones.

We have learned, working with the mostly Congolese/Rwandan refugee community, that when people have phones, coordination is far easier and more efficient.  When refugees first arrive, they are scheduled with non-stop appointments with different agencies, healthcare services and schools.  They are in a new culture, with a new language, in a new city/state/country, with many new systems all involving reams of paperwork.  Phones and conference calls with translators help them navigate through each challenge and obstacle.

My wife just returned from Rwanda, Africa.  While there, I was able to be in real-time communications with her in the remotest corners of the country.  She had purchased an international data and phone plan from AT&T, and she could text and send photos and videos all along the way.  She blogged daily (read it here http://words-on-the-way.blogspot.com/), and yes, there is an app for that.  In addition to communicating, she used her iPhone to take hundreds of photos and many videos.  She had an entire global audience of friends, family and social media followers digitally experiencing her travels and experiences.

In days past, reporters would struggle to document news, read what they had written over the phone, mail their unprocessed film to distant offices, or use satellite phones to send them.  Today with ubiquitous wireless connectivity and smartphones, we can experience the world LIVE!

Tate (grandma)
Our friends in the refugee community here in Boise have many friends and family members remaining in Rwanda.  Mobile phones, the internet and mobile applications enable them to stay connected.  In fact, while my wife, Shawna, was traveling to visit Tate (Kinyarwandan for grandma) in a remote part of the country without a street address, they were able to use mobile phones in the USA to inform family members of the visit, and then coordinate with them to have a person meet the car along a road to guide them to the right village, house and grandma.

When refugees arrive in Europe or North America, they connect with and share their experiences with those back home.  They can be the support system for those that arrive later.  Today, refugees meet refugees at the airport.  Friends and family connected by mobile devices have a ready made support system to quickly educate and teach new arrivals on how things work.

Also, in Africa, where large segments of the population are unbanked (without bank accounts), digital banks and payment services like M-Pesa have stepped in.  From Wikipedia, M-Pesa (M for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money) is a mobile-phone based money transfer and microfinancing service, launched in 2007 by Vodafone for Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania.  M-Pesa allows users to deposit, withdraw, transfer money and pay for goods and services easily with a mobile device.  M-Pesa brings payment services and infrastructure to the remotest corners of Africa.  These mobile phone services provide security and safety for money transfers and make it harder for theft and bribes to intercept them.

In my professional life I research, write and teach about mobile technologies and their utility and value.  In my personal and professional life, I experience it.  In the refugee community, it is an essential tool for adapting to a new world.  It is a connection with family and friends still in refugee camps and in remote mountain villages.  It is their communication with the past, essential tool, digital wallet and social network of today, and link to a better tomorrow.

Kevin Benedict
Writer, Speaker, Senior Analyst
The Center for the Future of Work, Cognizant
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I am a mobility and digital transformation analyst, consultant and writer. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.