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Accept the Smartphone Reality in Development. Everyone Else Has

By Wayan Vota on August 25, 2014


Recently, Elvis Mushi of Twaweza, shared with me interesting mobile phone survey results from his Sauti za Wananchi program. I find them remarkable in two ways. First, he found that 80% of Tanzanian households own at least 1 mobile phone. Then he found that mobile phone coverage reached 88% of the population.

One of the largest and poorest populations now has near-ubiquitous mobile phone access.

On the other side of the content, Ghana now joins Zimbabwe in having more mobile phone subscriber lines than people. Other African countries will soon follow. Even grand Nigeria, which has 80% mobile phone usage now, has 15 million smartphones.


But Those Aren’t Smartphones!

I know, I heard you mutter that already. And you are wrong. Each feature phone is already a smartphone, thanks to biNU. They can run “smart” applications, from Facebook to WhatsApp to YouTube, just like any “smartphone.” In fact, biNU found a majority of its users think their phone is a smartphone, when in actuality it is a feature phone.

Even better, small, nimble development actors already know this. Check out WorldReader Mobile, where thousands of Africans are reading full-length books on their mobile phones – African content, written by Africans, for Africans.

But What About the Poor?

Yes, the poor have less mobile phone access. They have less of everything, so why would mobiles be any different? At the same time, be careful how large you make your “poor” group. Twaweza found that even the poorest quintile of households had over 50% mobile phone ownership.

In addition, do you really work with that quintile? As development actors, we may talk about them often, and use them in our propaganda marketing, but we usually work with poor to middle level households or with organizations that serve the very poor vs. the poor themselves.

At the organizational level, everyone has a phone, and therefore a smartphone.

Yeah, But.. the Data Costs!

In a recent Technology Salon, someone bemoaned the uptake of mobile phones by the poor, saying they were wasting too much of their limited income on voice and data fees. Beside the blatant paternalism of the comment, it showed a lack of understanding of mobile phone success.

People have their own agency, and are (usually) rational consumers. If they find value in something, they will pay for it, and shift family resources to do so. The same goes for mobile services. If we design services where our constituents find value, they will happily pay for them.

The success of Safaricom, AirTel, MTN and the like shows Africans love their phones enough to pay dearly for them. Let us be challenged to develop content they want to see on their phones.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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15 Comments to “Accept the Smartphone Reality in Development. Everyone Else Has”

  1. Josh Woodard says:

    I agree that development actors certainly need to recognize the fact that the world is moving towards smartphones at a rapid pace. That said, your comment about development actors not really working with the poor, is clearly aimed more at provoking people than it is at portraying an actual reality. In agriculture and health, particularly, when development actors talk about mobile it is exactly for the potential it presents them to better share information all the way down to the base of the pyramid. Yes, they are still often working with intermediaries, but they also work directly (or through their intermediaries) with people at the BOP. The reality for the present is that the vast majority of people in the BOP are using basic or feature phones (without data or binu). I would encourage us all to prepare for the future of true smartphone ubiquity through our actions now, while at the same time not being so caught up in the hype that we forget those people who do not have a smartphone-like experience in the present.

    • Wayan Vota says:


      Let’s see… Smartphone usage rates around the world today are:

      Kenya – 70%
      Thailand – 50%
      Nigeria – 30%
      Indonesia’s at 25%

      And we’re seeing predictions of 50% smartphone usage rates in the Philippines by 2015.
      So taking into account the 2-5 year funding cycles we work in, we should be designing now for the smartphone world we’ll be implementing in by the time our programs are live.

  2. Josh Woodard says:

    Those numbers seem a bit high, although it is hard to comment on them without seeing the source and how they are determining those numbers. The Kenya figure you cite appears to come from Safaricomm’s reporting that 67% of mobile devices sold last year were smartphones, not that overall penetration is that high. From Safaricomm’s 2014 annual report, it looks like less than 9% of their subscribers had smartphones (1.9 million out of 21.6 million customers).

    Certainly, however, the trend is moving towards smartphones, we can both agree on that. I also agree that development practitioners should be designing for the world to come, which is going to increasingly include smartphones. However, even over the next 2-5 years, significant portions of the world that development practitioners work with will probably not have a smartphone, so we need to design in a way that does not leave them behind either.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Please see point #2: biNU, where feature phone users with data plan access can run “smart” applications, from Facebook to WhatsApp to YouTube, just like any smartphone.

      • Josh Woodard says:

        The word ‘can’ in this case is critical. Yes, biNU can allow you to access some of the web’s most popular websites on a feature phone with a smartphone-like experience, but.their app catalog is still pretty limited. So biNU is great, but it is not going to turn every phone on the planet into a fully functioning smartphone immediately.

  3. Joachim says:

    Maybe we need to peg those figures for example the 21.6 million(Safaricom figures) to poverty or low income households. As long as the households earn less income then we’ll expect fewer smart phones. I mean can 10 million of those users jump from low income to middle income (real middle income to the level of those in fairly affluent Nairobi, Naivasha, Kisumju, Mombasa etc…?

  4. Arvind says:

    This is where you killed it for me:

    “People have their own agency, and are (usually) rational consumers. If they find value in something, they will pay for it, and shift family resources to do so. The same goes for mobile services. If we design services where our constituents find value, they will happily pay for them.“

    I grew up in Kenya and though I only go back once a year now, I know exactly how expensive some of these services are. They are A LOT cheaper than when Safaricom and Kencell (now Airtel) first started operations but many people, especially in the income brackets that you`re look at, still find it difficult to pay for these services. Mobile phones have done a whole lot of good to most people in Kenya. I was impressed by the availability of access to facebook and twitter even in the refugee camps of dadaab and Kakuma, but let`s not kid ourselves, simplifying the issue by making a statement such as the one above doesn`t solve the problem at heart. People here go through the same addiction to social media and look for the same rewards cues that drive people in West to spend hours on facebook and instagram, etc and can`t take their eyes away from their iPhones. While I think Binu is an excellent service and am quite excited to learn of it, there are certainly services that are detrimental due to their addictiveness and overconsumption. Like anyone binging on useless facebook time would rightly agree, their better judgement is clouded by their need to for attention or to feel that their word is worth something.

    People also divert family resources into alcohol, find value in it in the short run and pay for it. It doesn’t make them rational.

    I liked your article, and it did get me excited, but you should avoid simplifying and trivializing such a complex issue with such a blanket statement.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      So what would be your solution Arvind? Would we limit how much people could use their phones, or limit who was able to have one? I don’t think so.

      Instead, we have to accept that cognizant adults have a right to spend their money as they see fit. We could do programs to help with those addictions (on FB of course!) but I just don’t see that happening.

      Now do people prioritize mobiles over food? As the World Bank found, yes,:

      A new infoDev study, carried out by iHub Research and Research Solutions Africa among 800 mobile users in six locations across Kenya1 living on less than US$2.50 per day, found that at least 20 per cent of respondents felt it was necessary to make real sacrifices to recharge their mobile credit. In the majority of cases (>80 per cent), that meant buying less food, at least once a week. New clothes, bus fares, utility bills and even soap were sometimes sacrificed to sustain the all-powerful mobile phone. As one respondent put it, “Better you miss to eat … at times you miss to eat and you have credit”.

      Now before we go too far, note that the WB found that those who were forgoing food for credit, often were using their phones to get work, so they saw the phone as a critical path to income. Might some be frivolously using it on FB? Yes on that too, though I think its obvious that mobiles have greater positive than negative effects on all people’s lives.

      So I’ll stick by my original statement – we have little right to deny others free use of phones as they see fit, even if they make the choice to prioritize phone credit over food.

      • Arvind says:

        You’re missing the point. Whereas you are very excited about the mobile phone revolution, I think that simply making a statement like “people are always rational and if they find value in something they will divert resources from household to other uses” is quite myopic at best.

        We always operate under conditions of imperfect information and almost always – value the short run greater than we do the long. Where they are dealing with a situation of habit formation, or needing to make short terms trade offs for the long term benefits, experience and a great amount of research has suggested that people aren’t, indeed, rational.

        I know this isn’t an academic journal and I am arguing on semantics but what you really should have done was quote the World Bank blog rather than making a misinformed statement. It would have given your article a lot more mettle.

        Every coin has two sides, while in this as well as every other article you’ve written, you paint a beautiful picture of ICT, you aren’t fully exposed to both sides of the coin. I’m not saying you’re wrong or even trying to play the devils advocate but simply stating things as they are. There is always a selection bias on programs that work but what of programs that don’t? In this particular situation, you have no idea what the sacrifices made by the household really are and while it’s great of you to point out binu and the myriads of services that are now accessible to people, there are also many services already in place such as daily lotteries where 5 shillings leaves your phone on a daily basis, or Kopa Credo, which is a services that loans you credit but at a 10% fees (and 20% at 5 shilling denominations) that has to be paid back in 3 days – a fees that is rather usurious, especially considering that most people that use the services are people at the bottom of the pyramid. Compounded, this comes to an annual interest rate of almost 11 million percent. Granted these are small loan values and that there isn’t some guy out there, waiting to break your neck if you don’t pay up – but the bottom line remains that such services do exist, and people do see value in them, as you rightly suggestion because in the short run, it might make sense to borrow some money, whereas in the long run, it makes no sense whatsoever.

        As people launch services for the poor, many will be value creating (or so we hope) but you don’t know what will be created or how people will respond it. People that work in development should know better than to trivialize it and, as history would suggest, should spend a lot of time understanding the contexts in which they are operating – be it cultural, economic, social or otherwise. It’s a well known fact that people in the field and a great deal of research behind them can only hypothesize on the manner in which certain programs will affect the target population. As such, it’s a bit much for you to trivialize their experiences.

        Rather than making a blanket statement about the ‘rational consumer’, you should have quoted the WB article. It will still carry greater weight than your statement (which, I assure you, I’m not the only one that sees a problem in it).

        Let me state it again that I’m not against ICT or the mobile revolution or even your article on the whole, but rather disagree with your statement whether in this context or generally speaking.

  5. Tony Roberts says:

    Your piece is a provocative Wayan but what is your intent? We know that there is no single killer technology that fits all contexts or all users; the smartphone included. Some people have smart phones and if those are the only people that you want or need to reach then you can rely on that platform. Some people have no phone or despite having access to a phone lack credit or charge. If your development initiative wants or needs to reach these people then it will necessary to incorporate alternative means.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      My point is that right now, the assumption is that you have to use SMS or IVR to reach the majority of people, which is becoming a very dated perception. Smartphones and technologies like Binu are allowing us to leap into “app-like” solutions that give everyone involved a richer experience.

      Yes, there will always be people who do not have phones, yet this population is shrinking daily. Look at the graph at the top of this post for proof.

      • Tony Roberts says:

        If I understand your position correctly Wayan you are saying that, “there will always be people who do not have phones”, and in your opinion development initiatives should just ignore them?

        The graph is based on household level research and doesn’t disaggregate for gender. It is probably safe to say that in reality women’s effective use of mobiles is lower than the figures shown.

        In my opinion ICT4D initiatives should not, as a matter of intent, ignore the interests of the most marginalised.

  6. Erica Hagen says:

    OK – I reread this article, and I think I get it now: you’re using the term Smartphone to mean feature phone using smart-ish features, like the ubiquitous Facebook (youtube – not so much). Yes, most people I know with feature phones abroad are using Facebook messenger on it. Sure, and I think that’s a key thing to understand. But don’t mislead into saying that they all have smartphones – that click bait is going to be used to justify a bunch more iPhone apps for development and app contests. You’re just restating the obvious, IMO. Harnessing this fact is still harder than you make it sound – Binu or no.

    Kenya 70% smartphone coverage? I assume you mean “smartphone” coverage – that is, dumb phone coverage.

    • Erica Hagen says:

      Addendum: by “most people I know” I do mean young people. Older people far and away were not, in a recent survey we did in Nairobi slums, using Facebook or anything else on their phones except regular call and SMS features.