Does owning a mobile phone drive people further into poverty, or is it advancing the livelihoods of the poor? A study conducted by Kathleen Diga in a rural district of Uganda found that owning a mobile phone did both, depending on how it was used.
The research looked broadly at technology spending patterns, specifically mobile phone use in households and what people were giving up to get mobile phones. This ethnographic study in rural Uganda focused on women. The study found that the women got income either from husbands – about $1 a day, or from small business. In 2007, when the study was conducted, 3 minutes off-peak talk time on the same network cost about 40c – which equated to about 40% of the daily household budget.
Given this substantial comparative cost of communication, the question was hence what were they giving up in order to use mobiles? Giving up travel, for instance was seen as a benefit given the costs of transport. Other households were giving up store-bought food – sugar, flour, oil, etc. In this case, those who had gardens could substitute with home produce while those without gardens actually gave up food.
Women were still disempowered in terms of access to the mobile phone because in most instances the male head of the household controlled it. An interesting question not covered in this study is the phone as a status symbol, because it would appear that even when possessing one was seen as beneficial, the costs of operating were eating into the meager household income. Hence it would seem that the benefits might be overstated.
It emerges that whereas there are organized groups that are moving ahead in terms of innovative and cost-effective phone usage, at the level of individual usage, where the phone is already in the hands of an individual, there is little concern with education/ information outreach and training to reduce costs and increase efficiency and benefits. This need for outreach must be the onus of service providers, NGOs, or governments through regulation and licensing procedures.
Consumer protection organizations that should be taking up this fight are frequently weak and ineffectual. The mobile phone, like any form of technology needs to be used appropriately, and its users empowered, for it to yield any positive change.