Culture of Mobiles In Rural Areas: Beeping, Flashing, Rapelle Moi - and Your Mobile as a Flashlight

Posted by CorinneRamey on Sep 28, 2007

The rural mobile market is growing, and carriers are working to meet the unique demands and challenges of this sector of the population. Even in the poorest countries -- like Sierra Leone, which ranks 176 out of 177 countries on the UN's 2006 Human Development Index -- mobile phones have become a growing necessity, creating a unique set of cultural norms and practices. According to a recent article in Africa News, "It is no secret that Sierra Leone has one of the largest mobile network services although said to be the least developed country in the West African Sub-Region." Mobile service in Sierra Leone is covered by three carriers -- Mobitel, Celtel and Millicom. Although the network has increased dramatically since the civil war ended in 2000, there is still demand from rural customers for more comprehensive coverage in poor rural areas.

The growth of the rural market has led to new cultural norms and customs of mobile usage. One of the most popular is the phenomenon of "beeping," in which a mobile user makes a call but hangs up after one, two, or three rings. This practice -- also called flashing, missed call, miskin, or bipage -- has evolved when mobile users don't have enough prepaid credit to pay for the call. Leaving one, two, or three rings can mean different things, or a missed call might mean that the wealthier recipient has to return the call. Jonathan Donner, in a soon-to-be-published paper called "The Rules of Beeping," estimates that 20 to 30% of all calls made in Africa are "beeps." Faisal Ijaz Khan, a marketing officer for the mobile phone company Zain, says his carrier's statistics show similarly high percentages. "We have about 355 million calls across the whole network every day...and then there are another 130 million missed calls every day. There are a lot of missed calls in Africa."

The growing beeping trend is an economic challenge for mobile carriers, as they make no profit from missed calls, especially given that the majority of people in rural markets use prepaid calling cards. African carriers are responding by charging cheap rates for services that fill a similar function. This Reuters article discusses the economic repercussions of the practice:

'Flashes' eat into one of mobile phone companies' favorite performance indicators -- ARPU or average revenue per user. Miscalls earn very little in themselves - and don't always persuade the target to ring back. Orange Senegal, Kofiloto said, lets customers send a 'Rappelle moi' ('Call me back') when their phone credit drops below $0.10. With Safaricom Kenya, it is a "Flashback 130" (limited to five a day -- and with the admonishment 'Stop Flashing! Ask Nicely'). Vodacom DR Congo's 'Rappelez moi SVP' service costs $0.01 a message.

The challenges of the rural market go beyond the practice of beeping, according to this article in the Indian newspaper The Hindu. Raghuvesh Sarup, of Nokia India's mobile phones division says, “The Indian market provides a unique challenge because we seem to live in two different time or market zones — rural and urban.” Nokia India has had to adapt its phones and marketing strategies in several different ways in order to meet the needs of its rural clientele. They have designed several different phones to meet rural needs, including a more durable phone that has a flashlight. Phones also include a detailed demo on how to make calls, since some rural mobile users have little experience with mobile technology. Some phones also are in up to 10 different languages and have bilingual keypads.

Sarup says that one surprise in marketing to the Indian rural population is that people are willing to pay more for phones than expected. The phones become more than a communication device, but also a symbol of prosperity and economic progress. Some phones are also communally owned by rural villages. Sarup comments on community ownership, “In villages the ownership concept is very different from urban areas. It’s a community tool in many villages which have the concept that everything is owned by everyone; it’s a lovely culture and more inclusive than we’ll ever be able to have. They say with pride we have five bikes in our village, seven cycles, four TVs. They share more easily than we do and their integrity in using community tools is amazing.”

Illiteracy is another challenge that Nokia and other manufacturers of handsets have faced in reaching the rural Indian population. According to a 2001 census, India has a 61% literacy rate overall, and the bulk of illiterate people live in rural areas. Sarup says that these mobile users have suggested possible solutions. “The large part of rural population that is illiterate has given us the kind of suggestions and solutions which are truly marvellous in the world of marketing. They said give us symbols; a flower means my best friend, the leaf I’ll use for my wife, a pod for somebody else, a bee for my daughter, etc. They’ve got it all figured out.”

Despite the challenges of growing mobile usage in the rural sector, mobiles are life changing devices to rural villages, connecting their users to information, employment, resources, and people. The rural market for mobile phones will continue to grow as both rural users and mobile carriers evolve and adapt to each other.

Photo credit to Abuja.


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