My 2008 is off to a running start, with my first transatlantic flight in the second week of the new year. I’m in the Netherlands for a couple of days, meeting with Hivos, one of the sponsors of Global Voices, and speaking at Fill the Gap, an annual event focused on IT in developing nations. I’m giving my standard stump speech on mobile phones and activism, followed by a debate with some of my co-panelists. I had breakfast with Firoze Manji of Pambazuka News, and he and I had a lot to debate over our morning coffee, so I suspect this will be a lively conversation.
Dr. Christoph Stork of the Link Centre at Wits University, is a researcher on the econommic impact of ICTs in an African context. His group has one studies on “household e-access and e-usage”, as well as reviews of the ICT sector across Africa. His most recent study focuses on the relationship between mobile phones and development.
Stork puts the private sector squarely at the heart of economic development, and SME (small and medium enterprise) business as the most important business sector, as most of the world’s poor work for SMEs. His survey covered 3967 small businesses across 14 countries, roughly 280 in each country. This is a difficult group to survey – people don’t like reporting their income to a researcher for fear that it will lead to increased taxation, for instance.
The businesses he surveyed were tech and non-tech businesses – he shows photos of public phones (usually, a mobile phone, a chair and an umbrella, manage by an operator, as well as slides of businesses like hairdressers. He points out that hairdressing in Africa can take many hours, as it can require multiple hours to dress a women’s hair – having access to mobiles can help people find a time when the client and hairdresser both have time to spare.
His group classifies businesses in terms of formality – are they registered for VAT? do they have a fixed address? do they have contracts with their employees? There’s different patterns of usage between the most and least formal businesses studied. Asking each business what terms of communications technology they use – phones, computers, mail, post office boxes – there are very different levels of usage… except with mobile phones. Nearly every business, formal or informmal, uses mobile phones and consider them to be highly important to their business.
Stork found a significant positive coorelation between business turnover and mobile usage, as strong as 0.90 in some sectors. Because coorelation doesn’t prove causation, he uses a complex model to analyze profit margins, labor productivity and reinvestment in business. After showing us a few screens full of ata and equations, he assures us, “There’s no doubt – ICTs help SMEs become more profitable.”
The complaints about ICT in an African context is about cost – about 60% of business owners complain about cost and 8% say that lack of financial resources keep them from using ICTs. Despite these costs, Stork argues that mobiles are the most used tools for support of SMEs.
One of the moderators mentions that these are hardly surprising conclusions. Dr. Stork retorts, “Good social research confirms the obvious.” That’s a line I’m planning on using in the future.
Lottee Pelckmans from the African Studies Center at the University of Leiden is working on a multi-country study of the social use of mobile phones in an African context. The study is going to focus on Uganda, Cameroon, Chad, Mali and Tanzania, and look at the “social and local construction of mobile phones.” She tells us that the “mobile phone is a type of intensification process” – it creates more time in the day for the user, the ability to accomplish more things. Phone ownership has become a form of group membership, which has some downsides – people are finding ways to share phones not just so they can communicate, but as a social signifier.
There’s a great deal to be studied in terms of mobile usage and calling behavior. She tells us about “beeping” – soemtimes called “flashing” – where people call and immediately hang up. It’s a way of signaling someone that you want to talk without incurring charges. In Mali, the phone network doesn’t charge you until three seconds into a call… which means that some people carry out 30 minute long conversations three seconds at a time. Christoph Stork points out that you can tell a great deal about social status from flashing – if someone flashes you, they’re assuming you’re wealthier and better able to pay for the call than you are.
Shafiu Shaibu from the SEND Foundation in Ghana is interested in how information resources can transform the life of farmers in north-eastern Ghana. His group partners with the ministry of food and agriculture’s market enumerators, who track prices in food markets across Ghana. They disseminate this information to markets in towns like Salaga, Kpandi and Kete-Krachi on bulletin boards, chalk boards posted in prominent places in the community. The prices show the value of the commodity in nearby urban areas, which lets farmers choose whether they’d like to sell goods locally or export them to a larger market.
Shaibu’s project tried to use internet systems to get price information, but costs of access via VSAT were too high – using the mobile phone proves to be more effective for these small bits of data. The project serves 43 communities, all of which have mobile connectivity, but only three have access to land lines. Those lines are less reliable than the mobile phones, as they can be damaged by copper thieves, and can become inaccessible during storms and other weather. He argues that cost isn’t a major issue, as very low-end, used mobiles might be available for as low as one euro each. “Once you have the handset, paying for the connection is not a problem,” because units are available at low cost.
Dr. Stork was surprised that SEND wasn’t using radio to disseminate this information. Shaibu explains that the only local FM station is based in Tamale and is too far from most communities. Other radio stations simply rebroadcast from Accra and aren’t open to local information. Stork mentions a system in Uganda – send a text message with a commodity name to a certain number and you’ll receive pricing information from around the continent.