On the Effects of Mobile Phones on Poverty in Africa

It may come as a surprise that mobile phones are increasingly becoming a commonplace investment in households throughout the developing world. India and Africa have been particularly targeted. Phone manufacturers worldwide are competing to flood African markets with their products, banking on the prediction that the African market for smartphones will double in the next four years. Africa is second only to Asia in number of subscribers, and its mobile penetration rate is the highest in the world.
Rural System visiting UgandaPhoto taken by Risa Pesapane, project director of Rural System, during the Rural System visit to Uganda in 2013.

“With 650 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa, there are already about 100 million smartphone users with the number set to double to 200 million users in the next four years.” –CNN

It is no accident that mobile technology has become so valued in developing African countries. In some ways, increased access to communication has made Africa safer for indigenous people; one USAID-supported program informs users which areas to avoid due to ethnic violence, 93% of female mobile phone users feel safer with a phone, and 85% of female users feel more independent. Mobile phones also make times of crisis easier to manage for residents.

“In the case before mobile phones, families would spend tremendous cost on travel and time in contacting family members about a funeral or sickness. From the results, Katote households agreed that this communication device provided a means of timely responses, reduced surprises with available information, allowed the ability to multi-task and plan during shocks, engaged less time to physically search individuals and less emotional stress during the really difficult ordeals.” –Diga et al.

Mobile devices are useful in other ways as well; 42% of mobile phone owners use their phones to increase their income and professional opportunities. Phones are also used to increase educational opportunity within classrooms, to improve diagnostic precision in medical centers, to reduce corruption within some state agencies, and to provide affordable mobile banking.

Yet the effects of mobile phones on poverty in Africa are still debatable. One might think that the prevalence of mobile phones in Africa would indicate that the people are coming out of poverty and are able to afford new technology. The grim reality is that households are sacrificing money for food and clean water for the sake of mobile airtime. The following information is quoted from a research article from the Department of Geography at Trinity College Dublin and the Department of Geography, Environmental Management, and Energy at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa:

  • In Ethiopia, the poorest 75% of the population who use mobile phones spend 27% of their income on them.
  • In Niger, the cost of a one minute call off-network is $0.38 per minute, representing 40% of a household’s daily income.
  • Research among university students in Tanzania found that they were spending five times more on mobile phone connectivity than they were on food.
  • There are instances in Africa—in the Millennium Villages, for example—where people have chosen to spend money on mobile phone credit rather than school fees for their children.

This research paper from the International Development Research Center reports that many people are willing to sacrifice significantly in the short term in the interest of perceived long-term gains. Whether or not the phones are actually used for business, their perceived role in long-term prosperity is enough to make African people sacrifice what are seen as basic needs in the present. It can be difficult to determine whether mobile phones are actually useful to the people who sacrifice to have them, or whether they are a matter of social status or fear of exclusion from the process of globalization.

Even beyond the high costs for residents, there are some serious issues to consider regarding the influence and effects of mobile phones in developing countries such as those in Africa. The following is paraphrased from the same research article quoted above:

  • Mobile phones foster a continuing dependence on foreign countries for technology. (This is another form of imperialism.)
  • Infrastructure, such as base transceiver stations, phones, and mobile credit is extremely expensive. Imports of office and telecommunication equipment for the 32 countries in Africa for which data are available were US$18 billion in 2009 (calculated from WTO, 2011).
  • The very construction of mobile phones involves the mineral ore coltan, which has caused serious conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This conflict has added to poverty rather than reduced it.
  • Traders may have difficulty and even fall into poverty as mobile phones cut middle men out of trading in a process known as disintermediation.
  • Rather than helping people across the board, mobile phones may create a new economic inequality. Businesses that have mobile phones will have a significant advantage over those who don’t, which may reduce market diversity and even economic growth.
  • Mobile phones may increase import penetration into African economies. If domestic manufacturers cannot compete, they may be displaced by foreign manufacturers.

The role of mobile phones in developing countries continues to be hotly contested, with some people promoting their usefulness in alleviating poverty (a palliative perspective) and others pointing out that the phones do not change the way economic and political structures produce poverty (a structural perspective). It is still early to know for sure, but it is clear already that mobile phones have had mixed effects on people in developing countries. Though mobile phones are clearly not a panacea for poverty, time will tell if they are useful tools of development in the hands of the people.

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About Laurel Sindewald

Laurel is an alumna of Warren Wilson College with a BS in Conservation Biology and a BA in Philosophy. She is a writer for Rural System, Inc.

Comments

  1. Risa Pesapane says:

    I think this is an interesting topic, specifically for our blog as we approach the use of modern technology to advance people in rural areas. I first encountered the use of mobile phones in poor areas of Jamaica in 2005. I asked why so many people without homes had mobile phones? The answer was that in a poor government, infrastructure like landlines was very expensive. Maintenance of all those “lines” is expensive and more damaging to the aesthetic beauty of their land. Communication is vital, not just on a personal level but on a person or population’s ability to be aware and take action as we’ve seen with the influence of social media on global politics.

    Although this trend of mobile technology in developing countries seems new, it’s likely that it’s simply gaining more attention in recent years due to growth. Indeed, it is expanding at a significant pace as this article points out. While long-developed countries like US are struggling to work within or redo their current infrastructure, some argue that developing countries have the opportunity to “leap frog” over the middle steps – land line phones – and dive right into the current available technology. Another example is mobile banking and it’s extensive use in unexpected places. Regardless, research supports that infrastructure (namely communication and connection with outside markets) is the key to improving rural areas in the long term. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in it’s 50 year review on the War Against Poverty stated that internet and cellular towers was one of the key factors in the success of towns pulled from poverty in Appalachia…..hence they’ve reformed their granting goals to include this as a priority.

    The utility of the studies mentioned in this article are paramount to understanding how important this technology is for these people and how it’s affecting lives, good and bad. Indeed it can easily be argued from this data that rural, isolated people feel communication is as important or as mentioned above, sometimes more important, than paying school fees. It’s also vital that we collect this information and use it to guide exactly how these communication services are provided (i.e. cost to the user, availability, etc.). If communication is this important, then it’s exorbitant cost is like asking a poor, dehydrated person to pay 10x the cost of water. It’s absolutely essential that people in poverty and in rural areas have the same basic resources as anyone else. The power of information (collected and shared through communication) is arguably stronger and more important than any other resource.

  2. Robert Giles says:

    A few years ago I asked an authority for advice on Rural System and the response after his study was, “there’s inadequate market for it.”

    The next day, over TV, was the startup story of EBay… announcing as I saw it, world-wide markets.

    The potentials for phones serving needs and providing opportunities for rural people seems very great if they can be exploited. I do not yet see the needed sources of electricity for their sustained operation. I see some of the potential evils. I remain hopeful that Rural System can assist developing the power of phones with education, health, inventions, software, and with developing markets, sensing the relevant future, and taking corrective action.

  3. Joachim Bahati says:

    for me I think the mobile phones are important to the development of developing countries. this is because without mobile phones, employments, communications especially during emergency time, would not be available and therefore, all development plans will continue slowly.

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