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[liberationtech] [TIER] smartphone usage in africa

Chris Csikszentmihalyi robotic at
Tue Aug 16 16:57:39 PDT 2016

Hi Arjuna,

Just a quick note that usage can be quite different across Africa: it's a
big country! [sic]. So by rural; urban; income; gender, phone ownership is
only one aspect of an individual's use strategy. Don't assume that an owned
smart phone is on, charged, or connected to data, indeed it is probably
being used very differently than a North American or European might expect.

A lot of Africa ICT infographics use ITU figures, which tend to be very
boosterish, citing for instance sim subscriptions rather than the much
smaller number of active users. This works well for the telcos, who want to
look big, and for the ministers of communication, who want to look
"developed." But even if you project active users, these figures can still
be pretty misleading. Many urban professionals will have multiple sim
phones, or simply multiple phones, in order to allow cheaper in-network
calls with friends/colleagues with different providers. How many North
Americans or Europeans use multiple sims every day? I've seen many
journalists and scholars conflate subscriptions with people.

One way we tried to reconcile the figures with what we saw in the field was
to divide the ITU's reported total of a country's voice minutes by
population. This was back of envelope -- don't cite me and do correct me if
I'm wrong -- but from what we saw in 2012, Kenyans spent an average of 3.5
minutes per week in a voice call, Ghanaians 3, Nigerians 1. These are most
people's primary phones, and this is average not the median, so given
income distributions it would be safe to imagine that something like 80% of
the population is far lower. In most of the countries I've been to telco
data packages are pretty expensive, and edge/3g/4g networks are worse than
GSM. So in a rural area there may be no data available, but you'll still
see some smart phones. Add to that the problem of charging outside urban
areas, and many users simply carry a powered off phone without credit. In
rural Uganda, where I'm working, when a farmer has to make a call, s/he
travels kilometers to a shop to charge and purchase credits. Why tie up
your money in credits that might devalue? But this strategy means that one
is generally not available for received calls/texts.

Why have a smart phone if you aren't really connected to data? For
instance, there are big bluetooth/sd card movie/music trading networks. An
Xiao Mina found folks with dubbed martial arts movies that had been passed
by hand for long distances []. Susan Wyche also
wrote about some of the patterns of use in (iirc) Kenya in ""Dead
China-make" phones off the grid: Investigating and designing for mobile
phone use in rural Africa."

All of which is to say that the Pew figures are probably correct, but
parsing their meaning requires quite a bit of local knowledge. If anyone
can get deeper figures on data usage, background data usage, time powered
on, etc, I'd be excited to see them.


Chris Csikszentmihályi
ERA Chair & Scientific Director
[image: m-itiLogo] <>
------------------------------ | csik at | <>

* "Art means… to resist the course of a world that unceasingly holds a gun
to mankind's chest."

--Theodore Adorno*
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