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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