Why Have Mobile Phones Succeeded Where Other Technologies Have Not?

4 November, 2010

This is an excerpt from an article by Jenny Aker in Center for Global Development Blogs

Mobile Phone Rural

[…] Mobile phones, by contrast, have been one of the most successful technologies ever introduced and adopted in the developing world. There are over 4 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide, including 1.7 million in Asia, 460 million in Latin America and 376 million in sub-Saharan Africa. While initial adopters were primarily male, rich, educated and urban residents, current adopters span the spectrum of rich and poorer, educated and uneducated, men and women. Adoption has occurred in different political environments (from Ghana to Somalia), in countries with multiple languages (e.g., Nigeria has 62 million subscribers and over 100 languages), with different mobile phone service providers and without (substantial) investment from the public sector. In fact, some of the poorer populations in the poorest countries in the world are adopting mobile phones – all despite the fact that mobile phone handsets, as well as voice and SMS services, are still relatively expensive. What can we learn from mobile phone adoption in developing countries for other technologies?

While this is a complex question, from a qualitative perspective, the answers might not be so difficult:

  1. Unlike many technologies, mobile phones have multiple uses (voice, SMS and internet) and multiple purposes, which can therefore translate into diverse economic and social benefits – such as talking with friends and family members, obtaining price or labor market information or asking colleagues for financial help.
  2. Many of these benefits are tangible and immediate, thereby allowing people to decide fairly quickly what those benefits are – rather than waiting for specific periods of the year.
  3. Mobile phones (especially the voice operations) are fairly easy to use, do not require literacy and can be learned quickly by practicing or from others.
  4. Not everyone needs to use a mobile phone to benefit from it. Multiple people can use one mobile phone, which means that its cost can be shared among multiple users.  At the same time, there are potential spillovers, since multiple people can benefit from one person’s use (e.g., information-sharing).
  5. Mobile phones can be easily adapted to local contexts. While the technology is still relatively new, mobile phones do not necessarily ask individuals to drastically change their existing agricultural, social or cultural practices. Rather, they provide an alternative form of communication.
  6. The mobile phone distribution system – handsets, SIM cards, scratch cards and charging services – extends into urban and rural areas (Coca-Cola, anyone)?  This means that mobile-related services are available to users, thereby facilitating adoption.  And the way in which those services are provided – via the pre-paid system — allows credit-constrained users to buy credit as they need it, and for increasingly tiny amounts.

Read the Full article | Why Have Mobile Phones Succeeded Where Other Technologies Have Not?

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