Balancing Technology With Other Basic Life Necessities

A new infoDev report conducted by iHub Research and Research Solutions Africa presents a fascinating issue that deserves more discussion in the near future by activists, tech companies and policy makers alike.  Just about everyone recognizes that making technology more accessible is a good thing.  Of the six billion mobile phones in the world, 75 percent of them are owned by those in the developing world.   There is no doubt that technology has helped many people out of poverty.  However, will addressing the digital divide come at the expense of compromising basic life necessities for those same people living in poverty?

One study in the report was conducted among 800 Kenyan mobile users living on less than $US 2.50 a day.  It found that at least 20 percent of respondents sacrificed food and transport to buy credit for their mobiles.  According to infoDev, “in the majority of cases (>80 per cent), that meant buying less food, at least once a week. New clothes, bus fares, utility bills and even soap were sometimes sacrificed to sustain the all-powerful mobile phone. As one respondent put it, “Better you miss to eat … at times you miss to eat and you have credit”.

Some of the respondents said that the sacrifices would actually help them make more money in the long run, as many of the phone calls were made for potential business opportunities.

…Eighteen year-old Martha Bosibori sells mangoes in a market bordering Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum. She says she has skipped meals to purchase mobile phone credit.

“Sometimes, you know, I’m hungry but I need to talk to someone, for example. So what I do; I just sacrifice that money and I don’t take that food. Then I buy that credit and use it to talk to that person who I was supposed to talk to,” she said.

Bosibori says that by giving up meals, she is able to make money through the business she gets by using her mobile phone.

“Okay, now for example, I have customers,” she explained. “Here, I sell mangoes [and I] take some orders from maybe, let’s say, neighbors. They know that I sell mangoes. So sometimes, they call me and say, ‘Today Martha, you can just bring five mangoes.’ So I take their orders through the cell phone.”

Her colleague, Susan Wacera, sells jewelry in a nearby market stall. She often walks to work instead of using public transport for the same reason. “Instead of going with, going with matatu [public minibus], I decide to buy airtime, then I go with foot,” she said…

The report authors cautioned not to take this study out of proportion; instead they hope the report will give a better view of how important mobile technology has become in developing countries.  “Other studies have shown that actually when people at the base of the [economic] pyramid get more money, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll spend it on food,” said Angela Crandall, project manager at iHub Research.  “I think this is a stereotype or mis-assumption that we make, that people at the BoP [base of the pyramid] are so hungry that any extra coin will go towards food. I don’t think it’s true because we found even a small, marginal income increase will actually go towards entertainment, so I think that this exemplifies that finding.”

If anything should come out of this report, it should be thinking about ways for people to not have to be put into a position to make choices between eating and making a phone call.  More governments should think of technology as being as much as a basic life necessity as food, shelter and transport.  This would also include discussions on making electricity more accessible through better infrastructure and making mobile credit cheaper.

You can read the full report here.

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