All about context

Before coming to Tanzania, I had read about the spread of mobiles in developing countries; I had listened to people giving talks about ICT’s potential for fostering change and fighting poverty; and I had discussed ICTs for development and that strange notion of “leapfrogging” with my students.

But still. Before I came here, I really didn’t have a sense of how rapid and unprecedented the adoption of mobile phone technology has been and what this means for peoples’ lives in a country like Tanzania.

Up until 2004, when about 70% of the Western world was already using mobile phones, no more than 5% of Tanzanians did. But then, starting in 2005 (when a mobile licensing framework opened up the market) the numbers increased dramatically and haven’t stopped doing so since. Currently, the total “mobile penetration rate” (calculated as the number of active SIM cards / total population) is somewhere around 40%, with the amount of active SIM cards growing with about 60% each year. In the first half of 2009, almost 1,000 new SIM cards were bought per day.  On average, it is estimated that mobile phone users spend 15% of their income on airtime and there is reason to assume that this percentage is actually higher amongst the poor (about one third of the population lives below the national poverty line of 500Tshs or $0.33 per day) .

To put this into some perspective: this is a country where 6% of households own a television set, about 1% of people have a PC, and – think about this – on average 15% have access to electricity (this drops to 2% for rural areas). Landlines never played a big role and there is no reason to believe that this is about to change – telephone lines per 100 people actually dropped from 0.5 to 0.3 between 2000 and 2008. As to the Internet: it is true that the arrival of undersea fiber optic cables in East Africa has improved bandwidth access tremendously, but this currently is of no significance to the overwhelming majority of the population (percentage of internet users: 1%).

So by any standard, it is the mobile phone that has become the medium of choice to keep contact, to socialize and to communicate with relatives too far away for travel. And not just in the cities, but increasingly also in the rural areas. Particularly here, phone sharing communities have become a common phenomenon, and some have started to run micro scale call centers, renting out their mobile phones. But there is more.

Mobiles are now also used to pay bills and transfer money by those who are excluded from formal financial services. In Kenya – where in 2007, only 19% of the population had access to banks – mobile phone provider Safaricom came up with M-Pesa, a system that allows people to transfer cash to anywhere in the country. Migrant workers use it to send money to their families back home,  farmers use it to buy cattle, employers use it to pay wages. And it’s big indeed: in 2009, the amount of money that was transferred through M-Pesa was equivalent to 11% of Kenya’s GDP. It has now extended its services to allow for money transfer to and from the UK and is now also operating in Tanzania, Afghanistan and South Africa. It’s the first time that those described as the “unbanked”, have a way to get cash from A to B in a safe and cheap manner. And all you need is a phone.

When driving through the country, what also strikes me is the amount of mobile phone shops everywhere. No matter where you are, you will always find a place where you can get an airtime voucher from all the four major mobile providers (no contracts, all prepaid of course). Vouchers are available in very small units and because calls between networks are disproportionately more expensive than within networks, it is quite common for people to have two, three, sometimes four different sim cards, i.e. numbers (and for those that are better-off this often also means two or three phones).

ICT indicators for Tanzania (World Bank data). As always when we use quantitative indicators to describe the world, it is worth looking at what is counted and why. Note that in this graph, the mobile penetration is displayed, i.e. the total number of subscriptions (active SIM cards) per 100 people. It should be understood that this does not necessarily tell us what percentage of people are actually using mobile phones, mainly due to the practice of phone sharing and the usage of multiple numbers – the former leading to an underestimation and the latter to an overestimation of the actual figure. Also, it has been argued that when comparing these numbers internationally, what should be taken into account is the demographic structure of the countries at hand. In Tanzania, 45% of the population is younger than 15 years (Netherlands: 18%). Since we don’t expect young children to use mobile phones, a good point can be made that the number of active SIM cards should actually be divided only by size of the adult population, obviously leading to very different figures altogether.

So what to take home from all this? First, mobile phone usage will continue to grow in East Africa, as it will in most other developing regions.  And second, people will use it in the manners and for the purposes that make sense in their lives. There should be no expectation that somehow the developing world is to follow into the footsteps of the developed countries, just every now and then boldly “leapfrogging” a step along the way.

And phone manufacturers have long understood the need to tailor to this. The cheapest Nokia model that you can get here (the 1012 which just about everyone– including myself – seem to own) looks like a regular low-end phone, similar to the first/second generation Nokia devices that were sold in Europe: sturdy case, small monocolor display, no WAP, no WLAN, no radio, and a battery life that will push smartphone users into episodes of sentimental weeping.

But spending some time going through its menus, there is more: it allows you to assign simple icons to contacts in your phone book (girl with short hair, girl with long hair, guy with beard, car, palm tree, you get point), to help those who can’t read to find the right number; it has multiple phone books and allows to set a cost/time limit for the next call, making phone sharing very easy; and the best of it all: it comes with a little torch (so far my excitement and joy of this has not been adequately shared, so please feel free to do so).

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has called mobile phones the most rapidly adopted technology in history, and they might have a point (after all, they should know).  However, we surely shouldn’t expect the adoption of mobile phones to taken on the same shape and color all across the world. After all, the process of appropriating technology to people’s lives has always above all been characterized by much creativity and thus a whole lot of unpredictability.

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One Response to All about context

  1. Pingback: Emerging markets | Walking slowly

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