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Mobiles Phones and Socio-Economic Development in Rural Areas of Africa


My doctoral research looks at the ways in which mobile phones generate economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in remote rural areas of the Congo. While mobile phones have been shown to reach various populations across spaces and times, research on mobile phones remains disconnected from the everyday lives of rural populations. Literature accumulated on mobile phones abounds with anecdotes, taken-for-granted data, and surveys, making the real lives of the world’s poorest one of the least researched topics of our times. This doctoral work takes mobile phone debates past the traditional claims of rapid spread of mobile phones and quick development to delve into the day-to-day lives of the poorest individuals, and probe mobile phone usages. The collected data covers eight case studies with specific respondents and/or documents: (1) kiosks, (2) individual users, (3) chiefs, (4) aerial guards, (5) focus groups, (6) professions, (7) youths, and (8) posters. The methodology employed for this work is qualitative interviews undertaken over a three-month period in rural areas.


In 2007, the ITU [International Telecommunications Union] presented the Congo to have 10.5 % of mobile phone subscribers whereas Sub-Saharan Africa was shown to have 18.2 %. Four years earlier, in 2003, Congo had 1.9 % mobile phone subscribers and Sub-Saharan Africa 2.8% (ITU, 2007a, 2007b). The growth covers more than 100 % both for the continent as a whole, and for most countries, including the Congo. One of the first studies that drew the attention of academicians to mobile phone developmental effects was done by London School of Economics professor Waverman (Waverman, Meschi, & Fuss, 2005). “We find that mobile telephony has a positive and significant impact on economic growth, and this impact may be twice as large in developing countries compared to developed countries [emphasis in original]” (p. 11). In 2008, Columbia University Professor Jeff Sachs (Sachs, 2008) wrote an article showing that “mobile phones spur economic development” in developing countries. Recently, the ITU (2013) wrote,

Let us all celebrate this mobile miracle that I have no doubt will hasten our pace towards sustainable development… In 2013, there are almost as many mobile-cellular subscriptions as people in the world… Mobile-cellular penetration rates stand at 96% globally; 128% in developed countries; and 89% in developing countries.

While studies have acclaimed mobile phones to be enablers of development, their findings derive from top-down concepts, large-scale surveys, anecdotes, and broad-based generalizations proper to quantitative research. Several critics (Carmody, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013; Coyle, 2005; Delhey & Kroll, 2012; DeMaagd, 2008; Gough, 2005) have called into question the claims of mobile phone-generated development. For example, Gough (2005) warned, “more attention should be paid to the characteristics of how people actually do use phones in the developing world… It is wrong to simply extrapolate our developed world models of needs and usage patterns to poorer nations” (p. 1). Using Sen’s (1999) framework, my doctoral study seeks to give voice to the world’s poorest in the Congo to trace the ways in which mobile phone penetration affects the lives of rural populations.


Research questions

Do mobile phones produce economic development in Africa? A sub-question is: do mobile phones improve the living conditions of people? Such questions can be best answered by listening to people and observing how they live daily.


Qualitative research in information science

The last decades, qualitative research has seen a tremendous rise in information science, and varying techniques have been used, such as ethnography, discourse analysis, case study, open-ended interview, participant observation, grounded theory, focus group, etc. (see Cibangu, 2012, 2013; Picard, 2013; Tan, 2010; Wildemuth, 2009; Wildemuth & Jordan, 2009; Wildemuth & Perryman, 2009). Since information usages span areas of private life, they have caused information science authors to tap qualitative research. However, with its positivistic tenets, the computer science-inherited trend dominates research of information science. Information usages tend to be seen as controllable variables on the one hand, and information researchers are regarded as discoverers and distributors of knowledge, on the other. Therefore, “information science in general and information behaviour research in particular has not had much effect on the computer science-dominated paradigm” (Cole, 2013, para 3 & 4). Moreover, information research done on rural populations remains scant (Feather, 1992; Meyer, 2003; Nathan, 2012). This may be explained by the lack of infrastructures in rural areas. My doctoral study seeks to fill the gap.


Data collection and analysis

After data collection, the study is now at the stage of data analysis.



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Carmody, P. (2012). Informationalization of poverty in Africa: Mobile phones and economic structure. Information Technologies and International Development, 8(3), 1-17.

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Gough, N. (2005). Introduction.  Africa: The impact of mobile phones. The Vodafone Policy Paper Series No 3, pp. 1-2.

ITU. (2007a). Telecommunications/ICT: Markets and trends in Africa. Geneva, Switzerland: ITU. Retrieved from http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/material/af_report07.pdf

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Wildemuth, M.B. (2009). Participant observation. In B.M. Wildemuth (Ed.), Applications of social research methods to questions in information and library science (pp. 199-210). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

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Wildemuth, M.B., & Perryman, L.C. (2009). Discourse analysis. In B.M. Wildemuth (Ed.), Applications of social research methods to questions in information and library science (pp. 320-328). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.





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