Mobile telephony's promise of bridging the digital divide

It is not only in Dagahaley that mobile phones are regarded as a lifeline
rather than a luxury or even a convenience. In many other parts of the
developing world they are the most easily accessible form of information
and communications technology. As Shihoko Goto of United Press
International says:



'For phone manufacturers and service providers, some of the globe's poorest
people have turned out to be one of their most profitable demographic
groups, while for international development agencies, the proliferation of
mobile handsets is one key means to bridge the ever-increasing
technological divide between rich and poor.' [2]



Land line and internet access are the preserve of a few, but the use of
mobile phones is widespread. A recent study says that 97% of the people in
Tanzania can access a mobile phone while only 28% have access to a land
line. [3] Mobile telephony is one aspect of the ICT revolution that could
prove instrumental in narrowing the digital divide.



The explosion in mobile telephony in Africa since the 1990s has come as a
surprise, even to mobile phone service providers. One of Kenya's service
providers surpassed its own projections in 2005 by getting 3.5 million
subscribers instead of the 1 million they had expected. [4] This explosion
is challenging preconceptions about the way that people interact with each
other through ICTs and a number of service providers have adapted their
services to suit unique local circumstances.




Cyber currency

One of the ways in which mobile telephony is transforming the way people
interact is by easing the transfer of small amounts of resources at a time
to enable communication. A mobile phone subscriber is able in this way to
transfer some of the money on his or her pre-paid telephone account to
someone else's account. This is done instantaneously and at a minimal cost.
Because a mobile phone is so important, this service performs a vital role
in the everyday lives of many people who would otherwise have to rely on
expensive and cumbersome bank or other money transfer methods. This form of
cyber currency is very valuable as it opens the door to many other
activities.



A large number of people in Asia, Latin America and Africa rely on
remittances from relatives living in Europe and North America. The majority
of these people are women. Some entrepreneurs have found ways to translate
remittances into cyber currency by enabling relatives abroad to purchase
air time to be transferred to their relatives at home in developing
countries. [5] Cyber currency is also used to help fund programmes such as
the Nairobi Women's Hospital, a hospital that specializes in treating
victims of sexual and domestic violence, and which recently conducted a
funds drive which included the transfer of donations through contributors'
cell phones.



In areas where computers are few and internet access is rare, mobile phones
are used regularly to check market prices for livestock and crops, to convey
information about HIV and AIDS [6], to access banking services and to
perform many other activities with ease. Campaigners for the Protocol on
the Rights of Women in Africa, popularly known as the Maputo Protocol,
urged widespread backing for the treaty by requesting people to sign an
online petition in support of it through their mobile phones.



Mobile telephony has also opened up business and employment opportunities.
In areas where individual mobile handset ownership is limited, some
entrepreneurs, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, make a business
out of charging customers for making telephone calls through their mobile
lines; payphones of sorts. In Bangladesh, 95% of these entrepreneurs are
women. [7]



Although mobile phones are the most widespread form of ICTs, nevertheless
they are not accessible to all people. Since women are the most
disadvantaged among the poor and the marginalized, they inevitably are the
ones who are most affected where mobile telephony is inaccessible. Because
mobile telephony has emerged as the one form of ICT most likely to bring
direct and immediate benefit to individual poor women, women's rights
activists would be well advised to explore further the possibilities of
advancing the rights of women through the use of mobile telephony.






Notes:

  1. "Mobile phone helps one Somali refugee send long-distance SOS." June 23,
    2006.http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/news/opendoc.htm?tbl=NEWS&id=449b...

  2. Goto, Shihoko "Globe Talk: Mobile banking as aid tool." Middle East
    Times, June 19, 2006.
    http://www.upi.com/Hi-Tech/view.php?StoryID=20060615-043538-2993r

  3. Qtd. in "Cell phones may help 'save' Africa." July 11, 2005.
    news.mongabay.com/2005/0712-rhett_butler.html

  4. http://www.businessinafrica.net/features/companies/422354.htm

  5. Such as http://www.mamamikes.com.

  6. See Jones, Rochelle. "HIV/AIDS and mobile technology: SMS saving lives
    in Africa." http://www.awid.org/go.php?list=analysis&prefix=analysis&item=00235

  7. Ibid. 3.

Tags

Add new comment