Sure, your phone’s useful in finding a mutual time and place to meet your friend for drinks. But what kind of a difference can a cell phone make in Niger?
Jenny C. Aker and Isaac M. Mbiti provide a pertinent anecdote in their article entitled “Africa Calling” in the most recent issue of The Boston Review. For one businessman in Niger, the introduction of a cellular network seven years ago was life-changing:
Before the tower was built, he had to travel several hours to the nearest markets via a communal taxi to buy millet or meet potential customers, and he never knew whether the person he wanted to see would be there. Now he uses his mobile phone to find the best price, communicate with buyers, and place orders.
Aker and Mbiti go beyond just providing statistics, though. As the authors note, the iconic image of the African phone user is a woman using the cell phone as a tool for improving trade in her local market. But, the authors, ask, does this image correlate to reality? In a nation like Niger–where 85% of the population lives on less than $2 per day–more than 60% have mobile phones. What are the implications for Western businesses that choose to invest in telecommunications rather than infrastructure, microfinance, or even direct aid?
I, too, have noticed the abundance (and everyday reliance) of cell phone networks, whether travelling in sub-Saharan or western Africa. It’s striking how extensive the reach of these companies has become: entire buildings are painted (free of cost for the business) in the vivid colors of a cell phone network as advertising; local markets sell SIM cards that retain user information, while eliminating the need for actually owning a phone (some individuals share a phone to save money).
Though the argument hints of paternalism (is it the West’s right to make such judgements on how–and how much–poor African nations should spend on these networks?), the question still feels somehow worth pondering. Access to information such as price comparison for millet, for example, has affected the economy as a whole; cell phones have aided in civic stability, such as “voter-education and registration campaigns and citizen-based monitoring.”
As Aker and Mbiti posit in this reasoned analysis of cell phone usage in Africa, “Can mobile phones transform the lives of the poor?” It’s a tough question to answer.
Filed under: africa, technology, africa, aker, cell phone, network, niger, poor, technology, usage