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The Main Drivers of Mobile Phone Ownership Will Surprise You

By Wayan Vota on August 14, 2019

mobile phone ownership nigeria

Mobile phone services were introduced in Nigeria in 2001. Yet, we still don’t really know who owns a mobile phone in Africa’s most populous country. Nigerian Communication Commission statistics suggests that mobile penetration grew from 80.85% in 2012 to 110.38% in 2016, while analysis from the International Telecommunication Union in 2018 suggests growth from 67.41% to 83% over the same period.

According to the GSMA, these figures may be inaccurate because of multiple active SIM card ownership and mobile phone sharing. Those researchers suggest that mobile adoption per unique user, a better proxy for mobile phone ownership, is substantially lower, 46% in 2016 and 64% in 2017. This is versus 87% in Kenya, 84% in South Africa, and 74% in Ghana.

A major obstacle to understanding mobile phone ownership is the availability of high-quality data sets, especially from the demand-side. It is difficult to analyze the digital divide based on gender, urban/rural population and other socio-economic factors using supply-side data from operators.

Analyzing Mobile Phone Ownership  in Nigeria

In Determinants of Mobile Phone Ownership in Nigeria, researchers Ivan Forenbacher, Siniša Husnjak, Ivan Cvitić, and Ivan Jovović conducted the first detailed analysis of socio-economic factors affecting mobile phone ownership at the individual level in Nigeria.

To solve the perennial problem of scarcity of high-quality data in developing country research, they used the latest national-level DataFirst data set from Statistics South Africa about ICT access at the individual level in 2012. This data set focused on mobile adoption from 1,552 individuals. The sample was stratified, clustered, and probability-weighted to make it representative of the situation at the national level.

Then the researchers estimated a logistic regression and considered factors from the literature as well as new factors that could be queried with available data but have traditionally been neglected in studies of the digital divide, such as type of electricity supply.

What Drives Mobile Phone Ownership in Nigeria?

The researchers found that the most significant determinants of mobile phone ownership in Nigeria among individuals at least 15 years old are informal work, social engagement, education, employment status, and type of electricity.

Retirement, Employment, and Informal Work

The researchers found that all types of work were a key driver of mobile phone ownership. Surprisingly, retired individuals were most likely to own a mobile phone, followed by employed, and self-employed. Those employed, or seeking employment, were also significantly more likely than students to own mobile phones, suggesting that mobile phones usage is highly correlated with business and job-seeking.

Informal activities showed a statistically significant positive association with the likelihood of mobile phone ownership, suggesting that much informal work – estimated to make up 60% of the gross domestic product in Nigeria – is coordinated and conducted using mobile phones.

Type of Electricity Supply for Phone Charging

Another key driver of mobile phone ownership in Nigeria is the type of electricity supply to the user, which is a variable often neglected in digital divide research. Access to electricity supplied by a generator or through a main electricity grid was associated with significantly higher likelihood of owning a mobile phone.

Surprisingly, access to “other” types of electricity supply, like solar power, did not contribute significantly to the probability of owning a mobile phone. This calls into question the many Pay as You Go Solar Power programs that assume increased access to renewable energy will decrease the digital divide.

Literacy in Mother Tongue Languages

English is an official language in Nigeria, yet reading and writing skills in that language do not appear to significantly influence mobile phone ownership. Other studies in Rwanda and Gabon have come to a similar conclusion.

Surprisingly, writing or reading one’s mother tongue with difficulty was associated with significantly higher likelihood of mobile phone ownership than not being able to read or write in the mother tongue at all. This suggests that proficiency in reading and writing other languages besides English, foremost one’s mother tongue, may be more relevant factors in predicting ownership.

What Hinders Mobile Phone Ownership in Nigeria?

The researchers’ analysis suggests that the strongest hindrances to mobile phone ownership are female gender, older age, and illiteracy in one’s mother tongue. None of these are that surprising in themselves. However, what did not hinder mobile phone ownership was surprising.

For example, they found that rural or urban location did not significantly contribute to probability of mobile phone ownership, which contradicts general assumptions of many ICT4D practitioners.

As stated previously, they also found that English literacy does not influence mobile phone ownership. Content in local languages matters more than content in official languages, even ones as widespread as English in Nigeria.

What We Should Be Doing Differently

This research highlights the importance of contextualizing digital divide solutions to the particular country rather than applying “one size fits all” solutions or relying on generalized assumptions that are not supported by detailed empirical research.

For example, the Nigerian Growth Enhancement Support Group (GES) policy in 2012 aimed to reduce the digital divide in mobile ownership among rural users. The GES policy was based on the idea that poverty was the main reason for not owning a mobile phone, but this conclusion was never supported with detailed ex ante analysis of socio-economic factors affecting mobile phone ownership.

This research calls into question the basis for that policy and suggests focusing on other factors would have greater impact on mobile phone ownership in Nigeria.

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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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