Mobile telephony's promise of bridging the digital divide

2 June 2010


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.

  1. "Mobile phone helps one Somali refugee send long-distance SOS." June 23, 2006.
  2. Goto, Shihoko "Globe Talk: Mobile banking as aid tool." Middle East Times, June 19, 2006.
  3. Qtd. in "Cell phones may help 'save' Africa." July 11, 2005.
  5. Such as
  6. See Jones, Rochelle. "HIV/AIDS and mobile technology: SMS saving lives in Africa."
  7. Ibid. 3.
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