From Favelas to Townships: Mobile Use in Low-Income Populations

Posted by CorinneRamey on Jul 16, 2008

Mobile phone use is booming. There are close to 3.5 billion mobile phones in use, and mobile penetration rates are increasing quickly, especially in developing countries. This rise of mobile phone use by low-income and so-called 'base-of-the-pyramid' users raises a number of questions. Are low-income people using mobile technology in different ways than their higher-income counterparts? How can mobile phones be desiged and used in ways that are useful to these populations? Two new studies--one of favelas in Brazil and the other of a low-income township in South Africa--seek to answer these questions.

An article in Vodafone's Receiver magazine, "Cell phone use among low-income communities – an initial study of technology appropriation in the favelas of Brazil," looks at how low-income residents of Rio de Janiero's favelas (or slums) use mobile phones. The author, Adriana de Souza e Silva, conducted a study that involved interviews with the residents of three different favelas in Rio.

Brazil has both burgeoning income inequality and an increasing number of mobile phones -- current penetration rate is 63%. According to De Souza e Silva, about 10% of the Brazilian population earns 46% of the country’s income. Twenty percent of the population lives in favelas that often have no heat, water, or electricity. These favelas are oftened located right next to middle and higher-income neighborhood, creating unique social relationships and tensions.

In the study, De Souza e Silva sought to answer two questions:

* How does low-income individuals appropriate technology in their own particular ways, based on pricing policies and technology availability?
* What is the relationship between higher- and low-income population cell phone uses?

De Souza e Silva concludes that the favela dwellers use mobile phones in different ways than their higher-income neighbors. "We can see how these communities appropriate technology by changing its primary purpose," she writes. For example, favela dwellers use phones for safety in a different way than the adjacent communities. Silva writes,

However, instead of calling the police in case of an accident, they want to be able to call the favela before going back home to make sure the situation is safe there. In the favela drug lords might battle for territory, and shootings between them and the police occur. "Sometimes you are at school, and if there are shots being fired [in the favela], your mom calls and says: 'Do not come up'."

Because there are no landlines or pay phones in the favelas, they also replace this infrastructure of traditional telecommunication. According to De Souza e Silva, these mobile phones are often shared amongst families. She writes, "The typical image of a cell phone as a personal device does not always apply."

De Souza e Silva also looked at the need of lower-income populations to control mobile phone cost, and noticed three tendencies related to cost: "the rise of pre-paid phones, the sole use of the cell phone's basic functions, and the creation of a parallel market." According to De Souza e Silva, 80% of the phones in Brazil were prepaid in December of 2007. Many of the people iteviewed for the study said that they are uable to pay their phone bill. Because phone calls and text messages are free for the receiver in Brazil, they are nonetheless still able to use their phones.

Mobile phone users who are low on credit also frequently call someone but hang up before they pick up, a signal for the recipient to call them back. Most mobile phone owners in the favelas bought their phones in the "parallel market" in the favela.

De Souza e Silva concludes that the technology and market gaps between higher- and low income mobile phone users need to be addressed. She writes,

With the inevitable introduction of new services which might lead to an even bigger gap in technology consumption and population connectivity, we need to ask ourselves how to create opportunities to address these issues, and to develop a legitimate market in the country.

The South African study is focused o low-income youth. Written by Tino Kreutzer, the yet-unpublished "Assessing Cell Phone Usage in a South African Township School" looks at the mobile phone usage patterns of teenagers in Samora Machel, a black township in Cape Town. The study encompasses two 11th grade classes, or a total of 66 students, which Kreutzer calls "school-going youth at a bleak urban township school bordering an informal settlement." According to Kreutzer, the study revealed higher mobile phone usage than expected. He writes,

The findings contradict some current assumptions about cell phone usage among low-income black South African youth, showing very high usage patterns and expenditures despite very low income levels. Detailed activity-based questions indicate that virtually all respondents (97%) were found to have used a cell phone on the previous day for at least one communication, information-seeking, gaming or multimedia activity.

Kreutzer carried out the research with the goal of figuring out how to use mobile phones for educational purposes and m-learning. "It is necessary to understand the extent to which youth audiences have access to mobile technologies, if we are to be successful in future interventions to provide mobile learning to those in the least fortunate schools," he writes.

Results of the study included the following:

* There is no statistically significant difference between phone owners and those using someone else’s phone – in fact, “co-users” tend to use better phones than “owners.”
*Almost one in four current cell phone owners (24%) have had their current handset for less than nine months, while one in six owners (15%) have had their phone for more than three years.
*Two-thirds of respondents (67%) have used a cell phone for the first time at least one year ago, while one third (30%) have been long-term users for at least three years.
* MTN was the most popular network with 86 percent of students using South Africa’s second largest cell phone provider. Vodacom, the nation’s biggest network, had only 15 percent usage.
*All respondents (100%) have used a cell phone before to initiate at least one intra-personal communication application (not receiving them), which includes making a phone call, sending an SMS, giving a missed call, and sending a free ‘please call me’ message. Nine-in-ten respondents (91%) do at least one of these things on a typical day.
*Gender differences persist especially in instant messenger usage, calling and text messaging, which were done by much larger margins of males. Cell phone gaming, on the other hand, was found to be a predominantly female activity.

Kreutzer plans to carry out a larger survey in the future to continue to assess the uses of mobile phones for m-learning. However, even based on this small sample, he concludes that mobile phones could be a useful educational tool for low-income teenagers. Kreutzer says,

With the ubiquity of cell phones, and the broad availability of advanced features such as the Java platform or Web browsers, there is a sufficiently large basis for mobile learning to take place. Given the surprisingly large cell phone expenditure by respondents and their overwhelming aspirations for tertiary education, one could even expect a willingness to pay for accessing useful services.

Although the Brazil and South Africa studies come to different conclusions – the South African one about m-learning and the Brazil study about equal access to markets and technology – both address an important reality: low-income and bottom-of-the-pyramid users are one of the fastest growing and increasing large market, and their unique needs should be addressed - by commercial interests and civil society organizations alike. 

For more on call-back messages used as a social marketing channel in South Africa:

Please Call Me Messages for HIV AIDs Education

Culture of Mobiles in Rural Areas

For more on using mobile phones in low-income communities in Brazil:

SMS News for Low-Income Communities (video) 

Photo from the Vodafone Receiver.


Mobile web and banking in impoverished areas

This is a really great article. Reminds me of another article I read on about the mobile phone brining banking to areas otherwise completely unserved. Hopefully this will eventually lead to improved financial education a wherewithall that will spur loans and local business growth. Check out the article here:

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