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Beware the Mobile Phone Hardware Quality Divide for Rural African Women

By Wayan Vota on September 20, 2018

mobile phone hardware

We all can celebrate the massive adoption of mobile phones across the African continent, and be astonished at the rapid uptake of smartphones in countries like Kenya.

  • 90% of Kenyans have a mobile phone,
  • 65% have a smartphone,
  • 99% of Internet subscriptions are for mobile devices.

Yet before you get too excited, new research on Kenyan women’s rural realities from Susan Wyche and Jennifer Olson of Michigan State University, reveal a mobile handset hardware quality divide between genders.

Hardware Quality Digital Gender Divide

They confirm previous findings that rural Kenyan women are receiving secondhand phones as a gift from urban-based family members in major cities like Kisumu or Nairobi. Also common is for a woman to be gifted her husband’s or boyfriend’s used phone when he upgrades to a new Chinese smartphone, which can be about $30 in local markets.

Susan and Jennifer found that rural Kenyan women predominantly have bar-shaped feature phones called kadudu, which provide voice, text messaging, and basic multimedia and Internet capabilities. These phones are used for a variety of services:

  • To send greetings and “please call me” SMS messages to family
  • To receive M-Pesa remittances
  • To listen to the radio, and to use as a flashlight.

However, these old, used handsets present multiple barriers to effective usage by rural Kenyan women. The mobile phones are often:

  • Riddled with maintenance problems, including  poor batteries, broken screens, missing buttons, worn number pads.
  • Difficult to hold, so women carry them in purses worn around their necks, tucked into their bras, or folded into cloths tied around their heads or waists
  • Often dropped into water sources like toilets, washbasins, puddles, or broken, after falling out of tucked-away places.

The Old Battery Challenge

old mobile phones kenya

Batteries present a significant challenge to women’s ownership of mobile phones. Their old, secondhand phones usually don’t come with the original battery, if one at all. Replacement phone batteries are usually inexpensive, but low quality and tend to become bloated over time due to heat and overcharging.

This means that most batteries will not hold a charge after a few months, and women need to buy two or three batteries per year, adding to the expense of owning a mobile phone, which already includes buying the mobile phone itself, and buying airtime.

During Susan and Jennifer’s fieldwork, they found that rural Kenyan women were reluctant to use their mobile devices for any length of time to preserve battery life, and turned off phones at night and when not in use.

Hardware Implications for Mobile Interventions

Kenya is arguably a leading mobile usage country in Africa, yet if rural women there have significant used hardware issues, we need to be very careful when we assume that access to a mobile phone means access to a working mobile phone anywhere on the continent.

Like in other areas of digital access, there is a hardware quality gender divide too. This can reduce the likelihood that rural women will have their phone on to receive your SMS, USSD, or IVR message, or be able to respond to either even if they do.

The hardware gender divide also means that interventions assuming smartphone usage may actually exacerbate gender inequality – an outcome no one wants, least of all, rural Kenyan women.

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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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12 Comments to “Beware the Mobile Phone Hardware Quality Divide for Rural African Women”

  1. Mike Santer says:

    Please could you provide your source for the assertion that 65% of Kenyans have a smartphone as the research I am reading suggests with figure is much lower? For example the following report states that figure in Kenya is 20.9% (approx. 10,668,000 users). Source: https://newzoo.com/insights/rankings/top-50-countries-by-smartphone-penetration-and-users/

    Having a correct view on the mobile ecosystem is vital in ensuring appropriate solutions are deployed for ICT4D projects. All too often SMART/Wi-Fi only solutions are deployed which exclude huge sections of the population from access. The solution we have developed and deploying at BluPoint is uniquely multimodal and enables access to digital materials to Smart, Feature and Basic phones – all without data costs. (blupoint.org).

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I’ve been tracking the Communications Authority of Kenya’s industry statistics the annual GSMA State of Mobile in Africa (here) and Kenyan eCommerce site Jumia’s white papers. All of them have slightly different statistics on mobile phone and smartphone adoption, but the overall message is clear: the vast majority of Kenyans are moving fast to smartphones.

      • Mike Santer says:

        Thanks for the clarification on sources. I am struggling to find the quoted 65% penetration of smart phones reference. In the GSMA report Vodacom state a 65% increase in data traffic across the region but the GSMA report states a 34% smart phone adoption rate for 2017. There are also large disparities across gender, urban/rural, and age.
        A lot of articles seem to quote estimates for future adoption (2025) as though this is the current situation and so many ICT4D deployments fail as they are just inappropriate. It is also worth noting that the official figures from IDC in Mar ’18 report* that Smartphone shipments into Africa DECREASED 18% year on year whilst feature phone shipments increased by 9.9% year on year. Personally I think the view that smart phones will rule is flawed. Don’t get me wrong, they are important, but a multimodal approach that included feature (and basic) phones is crucial, especially in rural areas. We should also remember that cost of the smart phone is not the only factor in people buying a smartphone. Other factors also include battery life; fear of data costs; mobile literacy; fragility of cheap smart phones; use of touch screens in direct sunlight; ….

        * https://www.capitalfm.co.ke/business/2018/03/smartphone-sales-africa-drops-6-5pc-q4-transsion-brands-lead-samsung/

        • I tend to agree with Mike, even if smartphone ownership is not the main topic of Woyan’s article. One of the reasons why Viamo has developed its mobile services to be accessible on ALL phones is exactly that the persons who have little or no access to vital information probably also are the ones who have the least means to own or use relatively expensive devices like tv-sets, smartphones, tablets and/or computers. And IF they happen to have a feature phone, we shouldn’t assume either that they will be able to use it extensively (as the study points out, because of related costs of hardware, charging, airtime etc.), or that they can be reached easily via push information. Viamo’s 3-2-1 concept, whereby the users can call in to a shortcode (for free for a number of times per month) and navigate interactive vocal messages in the language of their choice at their own will and when they want, is a solution that at least addresses some of the issues related to the information gap the poor and the illiterate face. In 15 countries (Africa, Asia), in 2018 up till now the service has attracted approximately 1.8 million new unique users who have listened to 11 million key messages. On average, at least 70% of these users are under 24 years old (figures differ slightly per country) – which could be an indication that the older generations are less apt/willing to use their phone for information gathering, and that one will need to put in extra efforts if one wants to reach them. Even with IVR in local languages one has to look carefully into appropriate wording, menu structure and other hurdles that may prevent users from accessing or understanding the proposed content.

  2. Stephen says:

    Well said. Good article and it jibes well with what I’ve observed.

  3. Jim Teicher says:

    This article is SO important and SO true! Based on 15 years of personal observation I have seen that the vast majority of women use crappy phones — just like the pictures you have posted. They also don’t have the money to purchase the credit to access the internet even if they had a smartphone. The implications are obvious. To take the discussion to another level… even if they had a smartphone, the functionality of the low end ones do not permit storage of very many apps and do not provide access to the world of information everyone deserves. What I see happening is that their children are the ones taking initiative to somehow find a smartphone, and then coach/work with their mother to use certain vital apps like WhatsApp. This is critical because it then gives older women — including those who can not read and write — the ability to participate in family and group discussions via audio. This is a miraculous thing for so many illiterate women; but without a functioning smartphone it doesn’t happen. This is a very challenging situation, and thanks so much for shedding light on the issue.

  4. Janet CHAPMAN says:

    Very interesting article which resonates with our experience in Tanzania. I wondered if anyone had any comparable statistics for Tanzania?

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Which statistics are you referring to?

      • Janet CHAPMAN says:

        Mobile phone ownership, particularly by women in rural Tanzania.

        • Wayan Vota says:

          Reuters reports that the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority says the number of internet users in Tanzania rose by 16% at the end of 2017 to 23 million, with the majority of those using their handsets to go online. Internet adoption in the nation of around 52 million people ticked up to 45% in 2017 from 40% a year before, according to the regulator. Tanzania, east Africa’s third-biggest economy, had 40.08 million mobile phone subscribers last year, down slightly from 40.17 million a year earlier. I didn’t find any information on mobile phone adoption or Internet access rates for rural Tanzanian women.


    Very good analysis!

    In my country DR Congo it is even worse than other African countries. In many Congolese families the man is the one owning the mobile phone so when a woman want to use it she needs permission from husband.

    Very sad!

  6. Emily B Brown says:

    Interesting article, Wayan! Thanks for highlighting this issue — I want to tie this into future gender-based research activities.