Are Mobiles a Capitalist Plot to Keep the Poor Poor?

Posted on November 7, 2011


I was moved to ask the question in the title after spending the good part of a week going in and out of a conference in Johannesburg on ICT4RD (Rural Development) where much of the discussion and most of the presentations seemed to be assuming some form of smart phone and some rather significant (and expensive in the African context) mobile device and connectivity.

This could also be placed in the context that (as someone mentioned at the conference) in one study in rural Africa it was being found that the costs of mobile communications were absorbing up to 54% of the total net income of certain farmers and perhaps more tellingly, the major applications for mobiles in Sub-Saharan Africa seem to be premised on the likelihood that those for whom the application was being designed would not have enough money to actually pay for the connectivity costs of whatever information/services was being touted.

I should also mention here that my somewhat jaded question was in part the result of again hearing those energetically espousing the virtues of mobile (over for example, fixed Internet access through ahem… Telecentres) by pointing to the exact same applications that I was pointed to some 3 or 4 years ago when mobiles were still in their infancy i.e. providing up-to-date market information to farmers and providing (mostly) safe sex reminders to teenagers.

Both these applications are of course, worthy in themselves and significant if the (as yet to my knowledge, not undertaken impact/evaluation assessments) prove positive however, one would have hoped after all the hype and expenditures (and more or less total diversion of ICT for Development resources in that direction) there might be other additional significant applications that could be pointed to.

So I took my hesitations and provocative blogpost title to lunch with some colleagues here in Maputo (where I am at the moment) with very long and deep experience with development and ICTs in rural Southern Africa.  The discussion went back and forth but then a colleague drew a distinction between mobile communications and mobile applications (apps).  What they pointed out to me in example after example was the profound significance that having low cost access to communications was having on the well being of people (and in this instance particularly women). And of course, in the rural African context this necessarily means mobiles because of the total lack of alternative infrastructure .

From being able to make contact with a migrant worker spouse, to knowing that someone could be easily summoned in the event of an emergency (including the police), to being able to determine if supplies to support home crafts were available in the shop several kilometres away without having to spend the day walking to the town only to find that what was required was out of stock–the effect of (finally) having the telecommunications access that most of the rest of us have taken for granted for all of our lives was truly beneficial and even transformative of life in rural Africa.

My colleagues went on to talk about the “shiny apps” which is where I had started the conversation. They more or less dismissed these as being irrelevant, at least in the case of Mozambique which is where their experience was, given the relatively high cost of mobiles that could handle the apps we were talking about and similarly the very high communications costs which would be required in most cases to take advantage of these services.

So, we answered my question–

No! mobiles aren’t completely a capitalist plot to keep the poor poor at least for simple low cost person to person communications, but the jury is still out on answering the question for all the shiny M4D (Mobile for Development) apps that seem to be so attractive these days to development funders and the development-erati.