Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How SMS technology is impacting lives in Ghana

by Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

Kwesi Ben lifted his handset and as he did he stretched his neck and looked intensely at the screen of the cell phone he was clutching. His eyes looked so intent as though he wanted to see through the screen.

A few seconds ago, the cell phone had beeped. He knew immediately that he had received a short message or what is simply called text message.

His eyes beamed and brightened. He grinned from ear to ear. It was obvious the message might have come with some good news.

Indeed it has. His brother who lives in the UK has just sent him details of a money transfer he has made for him. Kwesi could walk into any payment point and receive his money instantly! He could now pay his fees.

Kwesi is 21 years old and he is pursuing his dreams of becoming a network administrator, so he needed every cedi he could get to pay his fees at the training institution.

He is one of the very few lucky Ghanaians who have a relative in the UK, who could afford to send them money to cater for pressing needs. And for him the message about the money’s arrival gets to him by SMS. That is the power of mobile telephony unleashed through the SMS technology.

The SMS (Short Message Services) technology since its inclusion in mobile telephony services in Ghana has impacted many lives – positively and negatively.

SMS revenue

Records available show that the global revenue of SMS in 2007 was more than $5 billion with more than one trillion messages sent out.

The genesis of SMS technology

The Short Message Service (SMS) allows text messages to be sent and received to and from mobile telephones. The text can comprise words or numbers or an alphanumeric combination.

Each short message is up to 160 characters in length when Latin alphabets are used, and 70 characters in length when non-Latin alphabets such as Arabic and Chinese are used.

Like most other services and modules of functionality of the GSM system, it is acknowledged that no individual can claim the invention of the SMS. However, credit has often been given to a pioneer in Finnish mobile communications, Matti Makkonen.

Indeed, the idea of adding text messaging to mobile telephony services was quite expected in many of the mobile telephony institutions at the beginning of the 1980s.

Experts within most of these institutions and communities contributed largely to the discussions on the direction in which the SMS should go within the GSM system.

For most of these experts, the idea was to use SMS as a means to alert the individual mobile phone user of incoming voice mail.

However, few within the community believed that SMS could be used to send text messages from one mobile phone user to another.

Meanwhile, it has been said in some other cycles that the technology was initially used between company technicians working on cell sites to communicate on progress of work. The SMS was thought to be a much cheaper and convenient means of communications between technicians and engineers working at different points at a time. At that time it was said, no commercial consideration was given to the technology.

After several trials with amazing success rates, the first commercial text message was sent on December 3, 1992 by Neil Papworth of Sema Group from a personal computer to Richard Jarvis of Vodafone on the Vodafone GSM network in the UK.

The initial growth however, was slow. In 1995, customers sent an average of only 0.4 messages per GSM customer per month in the UK.

The rapid growth of SMS

But very soon, people became more aware of the SMS system and began using it.

The service then experienced an unexpected growth. In 1999, the SMS market in Europe alone had reached over three billion short messages per month as of December of that year, despite the fact that mobile telephony providers did not market the product seriously.

Using the system in Ghana

Statistics on SMS usage in Ghana is hard to come by. I tried talking to people in the industry, searching on the internet and so on, but didn’t come up with any accurate figure.

The statistics however, available is as old as the year 2000. It indicates that SMS sent in Ghana grew from an initial 22,000 to over 130,000. With ghana’s mobile telephony density standing at about 7.6 million subscribers coupled with increased activities in and new ways of communicating, the figure could be higher.

For most Ghanaians, the SMS technology has become a convenient way of sharing love.

Kwame, a sports journalist I spoke to told me it is the best way for him to express his love to his girlfriend. He said he enjoys the thrill that the beeping of the cell phone gives and the anticipated happiness that follows when his girlfriend scrolls down her mobile phone to read the caring and loving words he has sent to her.

John, a radio producer, told me it is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to him, his close associates and church members. He says he uses the text message a lot to send inspiring and encouraging words to his friends. He added that, he even uses it as a means of sending devotionals to his friends. According to him, each time he had done that, he had received feedback that keeps him elated and satisfied.

He also said there were times he has sent text messages to encourage his friends and they have responded by asking him if he knew what they were going through at the material moment, because the text messages answered their nagging questions and given them solace just when he had sent them.

For some others, it is a convenient means of reaching someone when the person is out of coverage area or when the recipient’s phone is off. Text messages would mostly be delivered through the message centre anytime the phone is on or when it is within coverage area.

Businesses have been conducted through SMS, deals have been sealed simply by SMS and some people have walked away with successful transactions in Ghana.

SMS segments and competitions by radio and TV stations have changed so many lives in Ghana. Many Ghanaians now have a voice on radio and on television, freedom of expression has been enhanced, knowledge has become widely and readily available through the technology and ordinary people can also contribute to national debates.

Richard is a young man in his early twenties. He owns a mobile phone, but couldn’t afford another one, even though he would have loved to have a brand new phone with enhanced technology. And he was lucky to get one.

He sent a single text message in support of a contestant in a television reality show and he won an already connected brand new cell phone. His dream was fulfilled.

Besides its convenience, most Ghanaians consider sending text messages cheaper than making a call on their cell phones.

SMS in banking

Most banks in Ghana use SMS technology in their services. Customers of some banks receive SMS messages on their cell phones in real time, whenever a change is effected in their accounts. Immediately a customer’s account is credited or debited, the customer receives a text message indicating the exact nature of the transaction.

Customers of some banks can purchase and upload call credits on their cell phones by using SMS.

In some banks, customers can transfer money to other accounts by simply sending SMS messages.

During the redenomination exercise in Ghana, the Bank of Ghana sent text messages to Ghanaians on the exercise.

Some banks also announce new products to prospective customers through SMS technology.

SMS gaming

Recently, the National Lottery Authority (NLA) has introduced a game called ‘MobiGame’ and patrons can play by sending text messages.

SMS in healthcare

An organization known as mPedigree is developing a technology to use SMS to check on the efficacy of drugs on the Ghanaian market. Consumers can send SMS to mPedigree to check on the efficacy of a drug, and then a reply would be sent to them indicating the genuineness or otherwise of the drug.

This project aims at curbing the menace of fake drugs on the Ghanaian market and to safeguard the health of citizens.

SMS technology in agric

Busylab, a subsidiary of Busyinternet in Ghana has developed a system known as tradenet, it is an SMS platform that allows farmers and traders in agricultural products to conduct business across Africa.

One can easily access agricultural products and prices by sending a text message to a number that has been provided on the system.

SMS and elections

In some emerging democracies in Africa such as Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, the SMS technology have been used to communicate election results as well as make complaints about electoral malpractices.

Some political parties have also used SMS to communicate with voters and canvass for votes.

SMS tragedies

The impact of SMS technology on Ghanaian lives though, has not always been good news. There have been some tragic outcomes resulting from text messages.

SMS technology has also brought in its wake some pain and death. SMS messages have left in their trail suspicion, bitterness and anger leading to conflicts, with some ending in bitter consequences.

Sometime ago a military man stationed at the Castle in the office of the President of Ghana, in a fist of fury and jealousy shot and killed his girlfriend and committed suicide when he read an SMS message on her phone he believed was sent by a secret lover.

There are reports that some marriages have broken because jealous lovers have chanced upon suspicious text messages on their partners’ cell phones.


There is no doubt that, either way, positive or negative, the SMS technology has made and continues to make incredible impacts on the lives of Ghanaians.

While some remarkable things are happening in some ways that we probably will never know, the cell phone companies, radio, TV stations and some event organisers are also thankfully raking in the profits and lifestyles are changing.

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