Mobile Phones, Livelihoods and the Poor in Sub-Saharan Africa: Review and Prospect

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  • Mobile Phones, Livelihoods and the Poor in Sub-SaharanAfrica: Review and Prospect

    Gina Porter*Durham University


    This review paper focuses on the potential of widespread access to mobile phones for improvingthe lives of poor people: the opportunities that mobile phones have already provided, or may soonpresent, for enhancing their material well-being. Following a broad review of the diffusion ofmobile phones across Africa, discussion is restricted principally to one key issue, livelihoods, dueto space constraints. Attention is paid to the linkages between virtual and physical mobilitythroughout the paper and the final section reflects specifically on possible interactions betweenexpanded virtual mobility and sustainable transportation in the continent, an issue of considerablesignificance for future development potential in our increasingly carbon-constrained world.

    1. Introduction

    The expansion of mobile phones in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly over the last fiveyears, has been remarkable in terms of speed of adoption and spatial penetration. By theend of 2008, Africa had an estimated 246 million mobile phone subscribers, comparedwith just 25.3 million in 2001 and c. 82 million in 2005: moreover, numbers are growingfaster than in any other part of the world (Etzo and Collender 2010; International Tele-communication Union (ITU) 2009). Various media reports based on industry assessmentssuggest that the figure had reached 500 million by mid-20101. Even for many very poorpeople in sub-Saharan Africa, including children, the mobile phone is now perceived asan essential requisite: an object of desire and a symbol of success.This review paper explores the potential of widespread access to mobile phone tech-

    nology to improve the lives of poor people: the opportunities that mobile phones havealready provided, or may soon present, for enhancing their material well-being. Discus-sion is restricted principally to one key issue, livelihoods, due to space constraints2. Tech-nology transfer to Africa from Western contexts has a long history and its impact inrecipient societies has been varied and complex (e.g. James 2002; Stamp 1989). It maygenerate new forces of production and new social relations, which may be positive ornegative, but it can also transform detailed tasks and activities without changing funda-mental asymmetries and inequalities, notably those associated with gender relations (e.g.Buskens and Webb 2009; Cockburn and Ormrod 1993; Kitetu 2008; Stamp 1989).Among development agencies, the rapid diffusion of mobile phone technology and otherICTs in Africa has been widely perceived as a potentially exciting, increasingly essentialcomponent of development, to the extent that Mercer (2004, 49) refers to the ICTfetishism of international donors. However, over time, the possibility of a potentialdown-side to ICTs has gained stronger recognition. Thus, Cline-Cole and Powell (2004)argue that relatively little sustained attention has been paid to ICTs potentially highly dif-ferentiated impacts on social relations, Yau (2004) emphasizes the potential for capital

    Geography Compass 6/5 (2012): 241259, 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2012.00484.x

    2012 The AuthorGeography Compass 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

  • flight (e.g. profit repatriation by Western ICT businesses, direct transfers for purchase ofICT equipment), while Thompson (2004) focuses on the operation of power withinICT, as communities are integrated into wider, uneven global networks increasinglymediated by ICT. In this vein, while IDRCs ICT4D Research and Capacity Develop-ment Programme for 20072011 sets out to empower the poor in Africa and Asia toaddress their key development challenges through effective use of ICT, concerns aboutpotential negative impacts on poor people are clearly highlighted.3

    ICTs encompass a broad range of technologies, each with their own characteristics andrange of potential impacts. In this paper the focus is on mobile phones and verbal andtext messaging communication through them. Only 9.6% of Africas population has inter-net access: high speed, high capacity internet access across the continent is currently stillvery poor, though the picture is changing rapidly since companies are now launchingcheaper broadband (associated with recent investments in undersea cables) which willallow faster internet services through mobile phones (Rao 2011). Following a review ofthe diffusion of mobile phones across Africa and their uptake by the poor, discussionfocuses principally on livelihoods. Attention is paid to linkages between virtual and physi-cal mobility throughout the paper and the final section reflects specifically on possibleinteractions between expanded virtual mobility and sustainable transportation, an issue ofconsiderable significance for our increasingly carbon-constrained world.

    2. The Diffusion and Use of Mobile Phones among Africas Poor

    Prior to the development of mobile phone technology, access and usage of land linesacross Africa was restricted by poverty, inadequate infrastructure and widespread corrup-tion in the sector, often seemingly encouraged by unholy alliances of corrupt politicians,state bureaucrats and staff of established commercial providers (as described by Adeoti andAdeoti 2008; Obadare 2006; Smith 2006 in Nigeria, where corruption was probably par-ticularly rife). Because they were considered strategically important, services were initiallystate-run, though privatisation of the telecommunication sectors began in many countriesin the 1980s and 1990s, as externally-imposed structural adjustment programmes requiredliberalisation and reduced state involvement (Shanmugavelan and Warnock 2004, 3).Despite widespread liberalization, in most locations phone connectivity and postal ser-

    vices were so poor that the majority of the population was entirely dependent on face-to-face interaction for the conduct of daily business, because public telephones wereremarkably rare (Panos 2004; Shanmugavelan and Warnock 2004 citing ITU Telecom-munications Indicators Database 2001). The communication infrastructure was character-ised by a focus on external, not internal, communication such that it was usually easier tomake a call to Europe than to a town in the same country (or even another district inthe same city) (Shanmugavelan and Warnock 2004, 7).The hitherto unmet demand for better communication within Africa was evident in

    the amazing speed and scale at which the mobile phone revolution occurred, followingthe first mobile call in 1987 (Vodafone 2005). Mobile subscriptions first overtook fixed-line connections in Africa in 2001 (Castells et al. 2007, 23). By 2005, mobiles accountedfor at least three-quarters of all telephones in 19 African countries (Castells et al. 2007,23). A more recent survey suggests the figure for Africa as a whole is now about 90%(ITU 2009). Certainly, in many remoter rural areas of Africa, mobile phone networkcoverage remains very poor (an issue foregrounded in Panos 2004). As Buys et al. (2009)observe, network coverage is affected by cell phone tower location, related to population,elevation, slope, distance to the nearest main road and nearest large city, resulting in

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    2012 The Author Geography Compass 6/5 (2012): 241259, 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2012.00484.xGeography Compass 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

  • coverage exclusion for low density rural populations that are off-road and uphill.4 Thereare also limitations because of the lack of mains electricity to charge phones5 in remoterural sites. Even here, however, the situation continues to change rapidly.Subscriber growth in Africa is reportedly the fastest in the world at over 50% p.a.

    (Singh 2009). The average adoption rate for Africa as a whole is over 33% (Etzo andCollender 2010 citing UNCTAD 2009). UNCTAD (2010) figures for mobile cellularsubscriptions per 100 population range from 2.78 for Eritrea to 109.56 for the Seychelles.The level of mobile phone uptake unforeseen even by leading investors at the outset has been all the more remarkable in that it has been an essentially spontaneousdevelopment, firmly embedded, at all levels, in private sector enterprise: large telecom-munications companies provide the basic technology and gain substantially from theirinvestments, but are backed up by an already huge and burgeoning local informal sectorwhich benefits to some degree from selling airtime, ringtones, phones and phone coversand renting out, repairing and charging phones (Etzo and Collender 2010; Pfaff 2010).Fierce price wars between operators in the mobile phone sector (following widespreadmarket liberalization) have been very positive for the poor in terms of incentives (prepaidairtime in low denominations, free off-peak minutes, free please call me SMS, etc.). Pre-payment schemes are particularly attractive to operators because they reduce credit riskand the cost of revenue collection (Minges et al. 2010): the majority of people operatepre-paid accounts (Donner 2008). It would thus be nave to underestimate the benefitsthat the mobile phone boom has brought to international capital, not only as networkproviders but also from other elements such as manufacture of handsets.Value-added services such as mobile banking are also growing dramatically, though

    they are still very variable over space. Again, while delivering substantial benefit to sub-scribers, reportedly even among the poor (if not the very poor), they also bring largeprofits to private providers. This is well illustrated by reference to results at Safaricom(part of the Vodafone group), Kenyas largest company by market value (The Standard,Nairobi, 11 November 2010, Nairobi). In the half-year to 30 September 2010, the com-pany reported pre-tax profits up 14%, despite global economic recession; an expansionattributed principally to surging use of text messages and mobile banking services. M-PESA, Safaricoms mobile money-transfer service experienced such phenomenal growththat there were, at this point, 13.5 million users. In total, the company had a marketshare of 76.7%, i.e. 16.7 million customers. However, Kenya is among Africas early andprincipal mobile phone adopters to date6.Country-level adoption and usage rates, anecdotal evidence and observation suggest

    that mobile phone use is rapidly becoming an everyday part of life, even in poor house-holds, in many African countries, though detailed data on usage, especially qualitative andethnographic studies, remain relatively sparse (Duncombe and Boateng 2009, citing Jamesand Versteeg 2007; Minges et al. 2010; Pfaff 2010). Such ethnographic studies offer valu-able insights regarding the complexities of phone possession, use and associated transfor-mations (see De Bruijn et al. 2009, 2010).A recent analysis of data from qualitative research and a survey of young people aged

    c. 918 years (a group which tends to lack access to resources), in Ghana, Malawi andSouth Africa, indicates the remarkably high level of phone usage already achieved in thisgroup (Table 1) and reinforces earlier observations on uptake among African youth byCastells et al. (2007, 138139); see also Napolitano 2010). This study was focused princi-pally on examining young peoples daily physical mobility and mobility constraints, butpilot field observations suggested the need to consider phone usage and its implicationsfor physical mobility (Porter et al. 2012). Consequently, relevant questions were included

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    2012 The Author Geography Compass 6/5 (2012): 241259, 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2012.00484.xGeography Compass 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

  • in in-depth interviews and group discussions with young people, their parents andteachers, and in a subsequent questionnaire survey (c. 1000 young people per country).The research was conducted in urban, peri-urban, rural and remote rural sites in twoagro-ecological zones per country (24 sites in total). The three countries were selectedbecause of pre-existing research networks in place, but also offered suitably diverse agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions for comparison. Malawi is one of Africaspoorest countries, ranking 147th in the World Bank world GDP table for 2010, whileGhana now lies 86th (just behind Kenya, and newly classified as lower middle income)and South Africa 28th (though this latter rank disguises enormous within-country incomedisparities7).Table 1 shows how, in South Africa, young peoples phone usage is substantial, even

    in remote rural areas. The vast majority of phones used were mobile phones (only 1.1%of young people surveyed in Ghana reported dependence on land-lines; 4.6% in Malawiand 2.3% in South Africa). Usage does not imply ownership, of course: most of thesecalls are made from mobile phones belonging to family members, friends or at commer-cial phone points: the mobile phone is less a personal instrument and more a communalinstrument in many African contexts (see Tall 2004, 32).Further analysis of data from this survey of young people offers interesting perspectives

    on usage by age and gender. Usage increases with age, as might be expected, while theoverall gender pattern suggests that where phone usage is low and the technology new,male usage predominates (as in all Malawi survey sites and rural Ghana), but as phoneusage grows, girls usage starts to predominate (as in urban Ghana sites and all SouthAfrica sites). The authors suggest that this pattern, which accords with established under-standing of gendered technology uptake (whereby males commonly capture new technol-ogy), may be supported by other factors too, such as low network coverage in remoterlow population density (low use) areas, since the combination of girls relative time pov-erty and restrictions on their independent mobility may limit their opportunities to usephones, particularly if network access is only available when a journey is made to aremote site some distance from home. As availability of phones and network coverageincreases, female phone use may thus expand considerably. In high-use areas, betterreception will enable women and girls to fit phone use more easily into their busy work-ing days (so commonly tied to the domestic sphere), since they do not have to walk toremote areas to obtain a signal. It is hypothesized that female roles in the maintenance ofdistant family networks through phone contact will become more dominant as the mobilephone becomes a routine tool. In South Africa, the highest-use country, girls personalownership of mobile phones was found to be substantially higher than boys overall: thedifference between girls ownership of phones (23.7%) and boys ownership (17.3%) wasstatistically significant8.

    Table 1. 20072008 Young peoples usage15 of phones in week prior to survey in Ghana,Malawi and South Africa (n = 2905; from Porter et al. 2012).

    Settlement type Remote rural Rural with services Peri-urban Urban

    Malawi 0.4% 2.8%...


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