9 Things you May or May not Know about Africa

by phil on February 24, 2011

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I made this list because I got tired of people asking me if I saw tigers when I was in Africa.

1. There are no tigers in Africa. They are not native to the continent.

2. There are approximately 1,500 languages spoken in Africa.

3. There is more arable land in Africa than there is anywhere else on earth right now. This is one of the reasons that foreign governments are trying to snatch up land in Africa – to grow food for their own populations. Click here to read about Libya’s land acquisitions in the Niger Delta of Mali. But it’s not just Gadhafi (who will hopefully soon be deposed). China and South Korea have been quietly amassing large amounts of African land along with arid countries like Saudi Arabia.


4. 10% of Kenya’s GDP moves through financial transactions made with cell phones. The use of mobile technology in Kenya may transform how cell phones are used throughout the world. “When you think “financial innovation,” East Africa doesn’t leap to mind. But for the past several years, millions of Kenyans have been using their cell phones as mobile bank accounts.” Read more here.

5. Not everyone in Africa has HIV/AIDS. I get strange looks when I tell people my girlfriend is Malian. I’m often asked: “aren’t you worried about AIDS?” There are many African countries still struggling with HIV/AIDS. This is true. But the continent is not being ravaged by the disease as some people seem to think. The HIV/AIDS rate is 1.7% in Mali. It is 3% in Washington, DC, the city I was living in before traveling to West Africa.

6. Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire produce 57% of the world’s cocoa. If you notice the price of your chocolate going up, it’s because Laurent Gbagbo has refused to give up power in Cote D’Ivoire despite losing the November election. “Coverage of events in Côte d’Ivoire seems to have gone quiet, but a dangerous power struggle continues over the recent November 2010 presidential election results.” Human rights abuses should be dealt with in Libya, but let’s not forget Cote D’Ivoire. The lack of media attention has allowed Gbagbo to unleash his security forces on opposition supporters. More here.

7. There are not many Africans walking around half-naked in the bush. The iconic image of the African is one of “tribal village life.” For better or for worse, most people do not live this way. Even in many villages, people have cell phones and you are likely to see Barack Obama’s visage plastered on t-shirts.

8. 13% of the world’s hydroelectric power potential lies in the Congo River. It is the deepest river in the world and the most powerful river in Africa. During the rainy season, 50,000 cubic meters of water enter into the Atlantic ocean per second. It has the potential to single handedly power all of sub-Saharan Africa.

9. Africa is enormous. The continental United States could fit within the Sahara Desert (which by the way is the largest nonpolar desert in the world). Think about that for a second.

Obviously there is a lot more to Africa than what I’ve written here. There are also a lot of people who understand that Africa is not the neatly packaged image often shown in media and entertainment. This post intends to say that: 1. Africa is a big and complex place, and 2. There is a lot of misinformation about it. I have a fractional understanding of Africa, but it’s good to know that it is always possible to expand my perspective and further educate myself.

Up Next: The West African music series continues in Senegal. If you have not had a chance, check out the how to draw camels website. Everything is now up and running, including a blog that will focus on aid/development issues and social enterprise, and of course, camel drawing.

Mobile phone photo credit: Flickr user whiteafrican

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{ 70 comments… read them below or add one }

Katrina February 25, 2011 at 4:09 am

Though it seems obvious to most people who travel, I would add that “Africa” is not a country. When I speak with people from African nations, they tell me that people (from western countries, I presume) often assume otherwise. Indeed, when I say I’ve been to Africa, the response is a guarded questioning of *where*, exactly, I’ve been. They relax and smile when I can actually name a country or two. ;)

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phil February 26, 2011 at 12:26 am

Katrina, yeah that one be the most disturbing of all, and I have also heard it myself. I remember in high school a teacher of mine flipped out when a student spoke about Sierra Leone as if it was a person. The teacher made us learn all the countries and capitals and gave us a quiz the next day. This turned out to be a very valuable lesson.

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Katrina February 28, 2011 at 1:04 pm
phil February 28, 2011 at 1:33 pm

*cringe*

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Janet February 25, 2011 at 8:25 am

Great post! The first point made me think of this, pretty widely circulated song “Only in Kenya” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbYtASAakAI where they says “we got lions and tigers…only in kenya” It’s had millions of hits despite the fact that there are no tigers in Kenya..pretty funny!

The point about the mobile phones is interesting…I witnessed it myself while teaching in northern Kenya a few years ago and we even studied it in communications class in University…so many of my class mates could not believe how many Africans had access to cell phones!

When one of my best friends moved from Cote d’ivoire 10 years ago some guys I was hanging out with asked her if she went to school when she lived there, if she had to eat rat meat asking how poor her family had been..she was like “What the heck dude, we got MTV!!” I couldn’t stop laughing!

Sorry for my long comment…great post!!! :)

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Katrina February 25, 2011 at 9:19 am

Hahaha! Janet, I totally thought of the same thing. I love that animation, but I always find myself admonishing my computer screen: “There aren’t any tigers in Africa!”

I’m a very casual video game player and it drives me nuts when the game designers do things like hide pearls in clams. *facepalm* ;)

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phil February 26, 2011 at 12:31 am

Janet, don’t apologize for writing a long comment – I love hearing about these anecdotes. Funny about the video too, I’ve never seen it before. When were you teaching in Northern Kenya? I would love to hear about it :)

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Maureen Brady Johnson February 25, 2011 at 10:58 am

I love this posting. I am ignorant about many African countries but thanks to Katrina and Megan, I found Phil in the Blank and I am learning more and more everyday. I am so proud to have been your teacher, Phil, Katrina and Megan. You are still keeping me on my toes!
Mrs. J aka Maureen
PS. Where is the gorgeous sunset picture from and did you take it, Phil???

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phil February 26, 2011 at 12:43 am

Thanks Mrs. J! Glad I could shed some light. The picture is gorgeous indeed, but it is just a wikipedia creative commons image I found.
B well,
Phil

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Michael Hodson February 25, 2011 at 11:56 am

good and interesting material here, Phil. Good to disabuse people of many of their preconceived notions about the great continent.

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phil February 26, 2011 at 12:47 am

Hey Michael, thanks! I made it 9 things just for you :)

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Ayngelina February 25, 2011 at 2:20 pm

No tigers in Africa! How could I know so little that the first one shocked me.

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phil February 26, 2011 at 12:53 am

Ayngelina, believe me there was a long time where #1 would have surprised me also

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Laura February 25, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Great list! You are right on with number 7. I had a friend from Finland who lived in Cape Town for 2 years and when a family friend found out she had a South African boyfriend, she discreetly asked my friend’s mother if he wore clothes. But I don’t think it’s just Africa… I think people are often ignorant about how others live in the world. I know I had many preconceived notions that were wrong before traveling (though I did at least know that people in Cape Town wear clothes).

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phil February 26, 2011 at 12:55 am

Laura, you are definitely right that it is not just Africa. Although, I do feel that Africa is more uniformly packaged than many other places. Thanks for stopping by and commenting :)

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William February 25, 2011 at 5:27 pm

I love this post! I’ve been to kenya twice ( going for a third time this summer) and you are so correct with what you have written here. i love Africa!

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phil February 26, 2011 at 1:00 am

William, glad you enjoyed it. So awesome that you’ve been to Kenya twice and are heading back again! B well, Phil

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Scott - Quirky Travel Guy February 25, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Great list. I would’ve been guilty of asking #1… thanks for the education. I can’t believe there are 250 languages in Rwanda. That’s hard to fathom…

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phil February 26, 2011 at 12:58 am

Hey Scott, Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for reading :)

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iLuLuOnline February 25, 2011 at 5:38 pm

The biggest misconceptions is that Africa is a country…I always have to tell people no it’s a continent. Oh and we actually speak English in Africa. I was born in Manchester and partly raised in Nigeria and I remember in college in the states someone asked me how I learned to speak English so beautifully when I told her I had only been living in Georgia for about a year. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at her ignorance but I gently explained to her that we do speak English and a couple of us even speak French! And a lot of us have been outside of the continent and are doctors, lawyers, journalists, authors, models etc who have traveled the world.
Anyways great article! Made me smile

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phil February 26, 2011 at 1:03 am

Ilulu,
Yeah I’ve heard that too – a lot of people surprised to know that many African countries speak english or french. And you are right to say that many Africans have been outside of the continent in a variety of occupations. Glad you enjoyed the article! B well, Phil

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Christy @ Technosyncratic February 25, 2011 at 6:12 pm

This list is wonderful and very educational (I had no idea of most of these points).

The thing that really bothers me is how much a lot of folks see Africa as one big monolith… not a continent full of diverse regions, countries, cities, villages, tribes, communities – just like everywhere else! Africa in particular is so “otherized”, so it’s great to see posts like these that help counteract that attitude. :)

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phil February 26, 2011 at 1:10 am

Thanks Christy!

You are exactly right – people package Africa into one unit and it’s often one that is categorically misinformed. Thanks for the comment! B well, Phil

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Cailin February 25, 2011 at 6:38 pm

It had never crossed my mind if there were Tigers in Africa or not but now reading that there aren’t I know that had it ever come up I definitely would of thought that there were! You learn something new every day :) I always just assumed Tigers and Lions went hand in hand, but if I think about it I can’t say I’ve ever heard of one there. They are definitely in Asia though (as seen by everyones token picture with a tiger who has ever been there). Those were other good points you mentioned too, crazy about the aids rate being higher in Washington, makes you think…

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phil February 26, 2011 at 1:14 am

Cailin,
Thanks for your comment! Yeah, there was a long time when I also thought tigers were in Africa, probably because of the same assumption (that tigers and lions go together). The HIV/AIDS rate in Washington is astonishing and few people realize that it is much higher than many countries in Africa. That may be one of the more startling facts on this list.

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Hal Amen February 25, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Wow, fascinating about the Congo River.

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phil February 26, 2011 at 1:07 am

Hal, thanks for stopping by. I first read about the power of Congo River in King Leopold’s Ghost. It still blows my mind though.

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Gerua Somp February 26, 2011 at 6:07 am

Nice post. Reminds me of my own experience as an Indian student at UT, Austin. When told I was from India, they would ask me about elephants, snakes and monkey-brain soup! My usual reply, ‘I believed Texans rode horses and had pistol fights to an epic tune in the background…’

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phil March 5, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Monkey-brain soup eh? Nice response!

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Akila February 26, 2011 at 11:01 am

This is a fantastic post. When we went to Southern Africa (especially after staying in Asia for 7 months), we were stunned by how HUGE the distances are and how sparsely populated it was. The *tiger* point is hilarious because we constantly joked that we were ready to see a tiger on our safari! :)

Unfortunately, I think there are strange misapprehensions about every country. When we went to other countries and told people we were from the US and in the Southeast, they would say, “So close to New York?” And we’d say, “No.” And, they’d say, “Close to California?” And, we’d explain the distances from those places in relation to their countries’ size. When I was a kid, my friends in the US thought that I was riding around on elephants when we went to India and my Indian cousins thought that everyone in the US was divorced and filthy, filthy rich.

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phil February 26, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Yeah, it definitely works both ways. When I travel in Africa, everyone assumes that I am wealthy and that I must live in New York City. We all have our own misconceptions and stereotypes. Funny that you were able to witness both sides of this within your own group of family and friends. Thanks for stopping by and commenting :)

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John February 26, 2011 at 11:03 am

How realistic would it be to capture the potential for hydro electricity from the Congo? It is only recently that the downsides of hydro electricity have been publicised. What would be the knock on effects?

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phil February 26, 2011 at 3:58 pm

John, I don’t know how realistic it is to capture the power potential in the Congo river. DRC has major infrastructure issues and such an effort would likely require significant foreign investment/aid if it is to get off the ground in the near future. And as you say, there are downsides to hyroelectric power. Whatever route they take, any kind of dam would have to be carefully done – the Congo Basin is an important ecosystem.

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Jennifer Barry February 26, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Hi Phil, I was aware of most of this. Do I get a prize? ;)

I had heard about paying with cell phones, and that the US is far behind with this technology. I guess I was most surprised about the potential of the Congo, and the fact that the AIDS rates vary so much in the North from Southern Africa where it is very high. I can’t believe people ask you about AIDS just because of your girlfriend’s nationality though!

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phil February 26, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Jennifer, yes you do get a prize. For your knowledge, you will receive a lifetime of free camel drawing consultations from yours truly :).

Actually, I am hoping my audience on this blog knows a lot of these things. This post was a reaction to comments I’ve received recently (like the AIDs one, which yes, it is really upsetting that someone asked me that) from people I’ve just met who ask me about my trip. It’s also a reaction to the lack of media attention on Cote D’Ivoire.

You are right about the varying AIDS rates – Southern Africa faces an entirely different battle. I did not want to discount that fact, I just wanted to point out that Africa is not one unit where everything is uniform across the board.

Thanks for your comment Jennifer :)

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Grace Lewis February 26, 2011 at 9:45 pm

This is an awesome post. While a lot of this was news to me, it’s sad how ignorant most people are about Africa. I used to date a South African (we both lived in Atlanta and went to the same university) and for a couple years most of my extended family thought he was black. So maybe #10 should be that not all Africans are black. My friends used to ask him the dumbest questions – do you live in teepees? Do you have tv? Do you have color tv? He was a good sport and would tell people he lived in a house made of cows and drank sand (since there is so much of it.)

Thanks for further educating me. I love what little I’ve seen of Africa and wish other people knew the beauty and wonderful people (of all races) it has to offer.

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phil February 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Hey Grace, thanks for the comment :) Do you live in teepees!? Wow, can’t get much further off the mark. Glad you enjoyed the post!
B well,
Phil

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Jim February 27, 2011 at 2:02 am

Hi Phil, but there sure are tigers in Africa. http://www.jvbigcats.co.za/
There are a few tiger programs in South Africa aimed at rewilding tigers.
Plans have been talked about allowing them free range in areas of the Karoo.
http://www.lairweb.org.nz/tiger/release10.html
Hopefully these programs may work as they may be neccessary to prevent the loss of the tiger in the wild completely.
Since it’s a fun fact file, how about – “Are lions found wild living today only in Africa?”

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phil February 28, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Hi Jim,
I was referring to tigers being native to Africa – I wasn’t talking about introduced tigers :)

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Jim March 6, 2011 at 9:08 pm

I realise that Phil, just thought your readers might like to know about tiger conservation projects in South Africa and reasons for the them. Going to disappear in the wild soon the way the Chinese are fueling poaching. And look out lions then, because they’ll be next.

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phil March 7, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Appreciate that Jim :) Are you personally involved with any of these projects? Looks like some good work being done.

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Bocas Man March 2, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Great facts Phil! The things I can only remember in Africa is the Sahara Desert and Mount Kilimanjaro. I have no idea about Kenyans way of “phone banking” :) Again, wonderful post. Thanks!

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phil March 3, 2011 at 12:05 am

Hey Bocas Man,
Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for stopping by :)

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Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_ March 3, 2011 at 9:13 am

Haha! There’s no tigers in Africa? wtf bbq?
Seriously though, giraffes are better anyways… I hope they live in Africa.
The lack of nudity also upsets me.

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phil March 3, 2011 at 11:21 am

There are indeed giraffes and you’re right, they are so much better :)

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Erica March 4, 2011 at 4:22 am

Educating people is definitely key to overcoming misconceptions about the world in general. I do appreciate these facts though. I didn’t know so many languages were spoken in Africa!

I was telling my 11 year old nephew the other day how we would email him when we’re out on our trip. He was completely baffled how South America had the internet and video games. Hell, he thought that Japan was a third world country!

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phil March 4, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Erica, thanks for stopping by :)

The number of languages is truly astonishing. Japan a third world country? Wow, that one is pretty far off the mark.

B well,
Phil

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Dina March 17, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Very interesting facts about Africa! I’m one of those people who assume there are tigers there.

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phil March 18, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Hey Dina,
Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the post :)

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Kyle March 26, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Considering the bulk of my knowledge about Africa comes from Toto’s “Africa” song and the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy”, I totally needed this. Thanks!

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phil March 27, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Haha, I feel like the Toto song has been mentioned a couple times in the comments. Glad you enjoyed Kyle :)

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DTravelsRound April 2, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Great info on Africa. I knew some of it, but def not all. I had no idea about the Congo River! Wow!!

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Phil April 3, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Yeah, cool stuff right?

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Brady Stump April 15, 2011 at 11:40 am

Keep up the good writing!

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Graham GlobalGrashopper April 18, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Great article – so good to hear someone dispel the usual myths and preconceptions of this amazing continent!

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phil April 18, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Hey Graham, thanks! Glad you enjoyed it :)

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Erin in Costa Rica April 29, 2011 at 1:25 am

I had no idea it was that big – the US fits into the Sahara Desert, that’s incredible!

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phil April 29, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Pretty crazy, right? China fits from central to southern africa. So that’s the US and China and still room to spare!

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Joseph (Ghana) July 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm

So phil, i want to ask you upon all people say about Africa,how many have you tried to convince to make i trip to Africa(Ghana)? to see the friendliness and happiness one can have when he or she is in Africa(Ghana).

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Ayo August 5, 2011 at 11:52 am

It’s not Phil’s job to convince anyone to come see us. It’s up to us.

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Ben Spies is Awesome December 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Ahhhh this reminds me of when an old teacher of mine once was regaling the class with tales of her incredible Safari holiday to Africa.

Teacher: ‘It was wonderful! We saw rhinos, lions, giraffes, tigers…’

Me: ‘Ermmm Miss…there aren’t any tigers in africa. They’re an Asian big cat.’

Teacher: ‘What would you know??! I saw them. Of course there are Tigers in Africa.’

Me: ‘There really isn’t. Maybe in a sanctuary, but not in the wild.’

Teacher: ‘Shut up!!!’

I was about 13. Most of the rest of the class stuck up for the teacher – after all, how could she not be in the right, even when I went to the school library and brought back a book which stated the fact. She hated me from that day forth taking great pleasure in any chance to belittle me. Stupid cow! Mrs Williams, if you’re reading this, I’m still smarter than you!

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Robert (@ Kenya Safari) January 17, 2012 at 9:58 am

Phil, im Kenyan and i agree that Kenya is leaps and bounds on how people use their phones. Its called Mpesa mobile money transfer, which was the pioneer and then airtel, yucash and others. The concept is that you can load money in your phone with your phone number as your bank account which you can send to a third party, withdraw, pay bills like electricity, water, internet bills, you can even pay school fees. This was a purely Kenyan developed concept and boy has it taken off, the former MD of Safaricom, the pioneer mobile company is now among the World Bank advisory panel to spread the technology to other developing countries. Kenya is becoming a country of firsts….

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phil January 18, 2012 at 4:59 am

Very exciting stuff, Robert. I follow a lot of people on twitter who are involved in the tech scene in Kenya and it’s easy to see how fast this sector is growing. It will be interesting to see how things develop in the next several years.

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Thabelo justice mulokwe September 15, 2012 at 6:52 pm

We are also using mphesa in mzansi.

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mike curry July 14, 2012 at 2:42 pm

I been talking to A GIRL THERE WEST AFRICA IS THERE MIX RACE DATEING?DATING how do they feal about that

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mike curry July 14, 2012 at 2:45 pm

WHAT TIME IS IT THERE

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Michelle September 9, 2012 at 9:09 pm

I have a very close friend who is going to be leaving to serve the city of Kinshasa, The Democratic Republic Of The Congo, for two years this coming October.
I have questions based around the mail service in this area of Africa. It is my understanding that it is not a reliable place to send packages to. Is it reliable to send letters? What is your experience with this?
My next question is referring to postage. How much money is postage to Africa from the United States Oregon area for a regular one ounce letter? Ninety eight cents?
Can I send envelopes that are different colors or designs? I have plans to use my attractive stationary, will it be received well in another country?
How long does it take to get letters to and from Africa?
Do letters often get stolen?
What can I do to make sure my letters are easier to receive? Write the address in French? It is my understanding that that is the main language in the Kinshasa area.
And last but not least, what are some tips you would give me? Is there anything I should know?
Thank you so much for any replies. I appreciate it greatly.

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phil September 10, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Hi Michelle,

Unfortunately, I don’t have too much info on DRC or Kinshasa as I have never been there before. I do have a friend who is living and working there, however, and she blogs here: childrenontheroof.blogspot.com

Cheers,
Phil

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Thabelo justice mulokwd September 15, 2012 at 6:48 pm

It is good to see that people from other continents are interested in getting more accurate info about Africa. I am a South African. Ask me I will tell you … Anything about Africa.

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Dominique Kassi November 12, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I freaking love this. You did such a good job. I am from Cote D’Ivoire and I can say that some people have many misconceptions when it comes to Africa. I have a persuasive speech for my speech class vey soon. I will be talking about how what the media portrays on those countries is not 100% true. I am really excited and this will also help me.

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