A Combination of Perspectives on Mobile Usage in Africa and the Developing Worlds

There are varying opinions about the rapid popularization of mobile usage in developing countries, especially in Africa. Depending on the area in which people research and the population on which they choose to focus, conclusions demonstrate different outlooks on the situation as well as different values of the technology and how to effectively implement them into society.

A participant of Harvard University’s World Teach program, Vincent Porfirio, shared a skeptical attitude of technological innovation in South Africa during a presentation last Wednesday. His research revealed a large emphasis on the importance of social status in cell phone ownership and usage rather than ownership for practical purposes. In an area severely plagued by HIV/AIDs he was astonished to see the ratio of cell phones to people in the area. He also found a noticeable gender gap established by the use of mobile devices. Though the abundant use created a viable headway into more successful communication and great long-term potential for awareness through a social network called “MXit“, Porfirio expressed great concern for the money spent on implementing technologies rather than working with the resources already available and the drive of the industries implementing the usage, many of which are working closely with the government rather than in the favor of the people,  to pursue the industry as a business for profit instead of development.

However, there are many, like Dr. Laura Murphy, who have only good things to say about the progress innovators have made in the world of development technologies. The opportunity cost of time spent communicating with face time interaction is much less than the opportunities even the most basic of technologies have provided to rural families in Kenya and other village parts of Africa. These include communication to the immediate families wives had to leave behind when moving in with their husband or communication with their husbands with distant jobs who only return home twice a year.

My opinion is a combination of the two. The article Mobile Phones Will Not Save the Poorest of the Poor does a great job at highlighting my mixed feelings and major concerns. For though cellphone usage is extraordinarily useful for many things such aspositive trends in economic and human development indicators” and “mobile-phone-based payment and money transfer system” that are quick and efficient, cell phone companies are taking advantage and not providing to the poorest of the poor or making these options affordable to them, arguably creating an even bigger digital divide not only international but between countries of the same continent and of similar socio-economic standings. Most of the payment plans for cell phones in Africa are lump-sum costs, which most families don’t have readily accessible to them, that also include transaction fees that charge in addition to the cost of the phone and payment plan. As a result, money-driven businesses are causing “a stunning level of resource extraction from poor communities” that is overwhelming disappointing and far from the plan many developers had for the use of technology in these areas.

There is huge potential for cell phones in ICT4D and I do believe that many of the efforts will yield positive progression in the field, but only if profit can rate second to the needs of poverty-stricken communities and what they’re looking for in a product.

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One response to “A Combination of Perspectives on Mobile Usage in Africa and the Developing Worlds

  • paigewolff

    I, too, find myself agreeing and disagreeing with each speaker in some respects. While I did not see Vincent Porfirio, it seems like he was arguing that there are more pressing needs (i.e combating HIV/AIDS) than cell phone usage in Africa, based on the statement “In an area severely plagued by HIV/AIDs he was astonished to see the ratio of cell phones to people in the area.” To counter that, HIV/AIDS has been a tremendous issue in Africa for quite some time, while the popular use of mobile phones is a far more recent development. I can’t see how these would be mutually exclusive–after all, data from 2010 indicates that New Orleans has the #3 highest HIV/AIDS rate in the metropolitan U.S. but does anyone expect that to correlate with limited mobile phone use? On the other hand, Dr. Murphy’s argument that mobile phones are SO critical in rural Kenya did not convince me. When I questioned her on the “key” use of mobile phones as channels of information regarding, i.e. funerals, I was somewhat appalled that she responded the effect of, “It’s like this: If you’re here at the front of campus and someone dies on the other end of campus, how else would you know but for a phone?! People aren’t going to walk 20 minutes to share that information!” OH NO?! Haven’t there been town criers, horns to call attention, etc. for CENTURIES?!! All of a sudden, since mobile phones are accessible, people can’t walk, make noise, or ride animals to inform fellow villagers of a death in the community? Nevertheless, I do understand her argument that mobile phones to have utility even in a community without safe drinking water…Should mobile phones be made the priority in said situation? I think not, but in reality, where safe drinking water has not been made available and access to mobile phones has, who’s to argue that the ICT should not be utilized?

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