The Mobile Revolution? #TFBloggers

2013-02-25 10.27.13

Africa is frequently mentioned as one of the places where mobile phones have revolutionalised life – in a country which was too vast to support the infrastructure of landlines,  the mobile has given connectivity to many who had never had it before. As we’ve driven through the towns, there are mobile advertisements everywhere – especially for mobile banking, and almost every other shop appears to be selling SIM cards and airtime. So what is it really like on the ground? Is there an equal spread of usage?

In the Shops

This morning we stopped off to recharge the data on our wifi dongles, and for the best part of £20 was able to get 3GB of data (bearing in mind that I’ve used more than one each day so far!) and still have 4 more to go.. and Tearfund wants us to be free to share what we feel is important! In the small shop, there was the usual cheery advertisements for mobile phone, and those certainly focused on data … although most we’d seen on the streets seem to focus on ‘talking’ on the phone. In the Orange shop there was quite a pile of dongles available for purchase, and a handful of phones – several of which looked like Smartphones – but aside from a Samsung that looked like a Blackberry, and a Nokia, the others were brands I’d not heard of – signposted ‘made in China’.

The Nokia Asha 305 Smartphone is highlighted as games (first and foremost), a Browser, Facebook, Twitter and Email, a camera, Bluetooth, WiFi, MP3 & FM Radio, plus free maps, and sold as ‘faster and cheaper’ than other devices.  A range of phones specifically for the Ugandan market was in the Organge leaflet – leading on ‘Internet Everywhere’, with a range of simple Android smartphones available. The cheapest phone is ‘Nalongo’ – dual SIM, camera, torch, radio and Facebook – for 69,000 Ugandan Schillings (just over £15 – a lot if you earn about 2000 a day), whilst the most expensive, a Huawei Ascend G300 is 569,000 Sch (about £142) – all with similar enticements as we’d see in the UK.

In the Village

We had an opportunity to speak to Nora this morning to talk about mobile phone usage in Ogongora. She talked about her story, how PEP (the process Tearfund supports through PAG) has helped her discover new possibilities in life, and that she now runs a small hotel. She bought a mobile phone once she had this business, and this has really helped her communication with her brothers and sisters who live far away (previous communication would have been up to 2 week’s walking). Now she is in a position as a woman leader, she is able to help other (younger) women in the village – helping them to sell items in the market – and she has recently enabled her daughter to complete her studies – and has been able to complete all payments because of PEP… and with the phone.

Nora looking at photos of Odiirah's 6 month old on Odiirah's smartphone
Nora looking at photos of Odiirah’s 6 month old on Odiirah’s smartphone

One of the things that mobile phones have become famous for in African countries is the ability to call ahead to markets and find out the prices (either for buying or selling) before deciding which markets to visit – thus allowing  better prices – and the ability to save more money for other plans. Nora doesn’t have the internet on her phone as the 70,000 was hard enough to find. She has to pay for charging on those who provide car batteries for the purpose – around 500 (15p) for a full charge, which lasts only for about 2 days. Because everything is so expensive to use, she’s unable to share the phone with others. The village had tried solar phones which Tearfund had sourced from a company keen to improve technology for those in rural situations, but the solar panel was too small/weak, so they have returned to paying for electricity.

Before Technology

Getting messages around before involved someone going on foot (not even a bicycle) between villages – known as a Mobiliser, which took time (and the messenger usually didn’t feel any urgency to complete his mission). Public health messages came through someone who spoke to the local Pastor to ‘soften things up’, then a government representative would come in. Some have radios, as the batteries are easy to replace and last for 1-2 weeks, so many announcements used to be done on the radio. Posters were placed, sometimes in local languages,  but often in English and then translated (many don’t read anyway) – the message would be changed according to the local audience.

Within the villages now, the church leaders will be sent information, given to their congregations – local leaders will be invited to a meeting, and information will also be read out in church services – with an expectation that the message will continue to be spread by word of mouth (networks of networks!). Note also that phones are used more for talking than for texting, again because of the issue of writing/reading literacy levels.  Announcements of death (there was a funeral today) used to be made via radio, and are more likely to be made via phone… and today, we chose another Pastor to visit in the afternoon – the visit was easily arranged as both our interpreter and the Pastor have mobile phones.

Happy To be Involved in PEP?

We asked if they minded visitors coming, and they indicated that they were more than happy as it gave them an opportunity to share their stories, and they are happy to be photographed, as the pictures will “then be seen in America”. We were curious as to why they thought we were American – apparently they don’t but they use the term for anywhere western – partly influenced by films they have seen (although at 1000 per go, this is mostly the youth – who often manage to visit the local centre about once a week – with a TV/media player), Obama has brought America to their attention – and they see football and gospel music on TV.

Are phones a priority?

For this village, as they make their plans as to what they want to prioritise, although we’ve seen 3-4 people with phones, it’s not seen as a priority at all. The priorities for this village (in order) are:

  1. Church Construction (stronger, larger, able to be used for more activities)
  2. Water (a bore hole site has been identified and funding negotiated)
  3. A health unit (around 3-5 years in the future, with 7 rooms, for ante-natal classes, and basic health, etc.)
  4. Communication (which we think means other than mobile – including the development of a road from Soroti, rather than a dust track!)
  5. Food security (in the face of weather failures, etc.)
  6. Opening a Nursery School (which already exists and meets in the church)

So, tomorrow I hope to talk to Odiirah, our local contact for PAG, as she looks after the communications, has a smart phone, and can tell me more about mobile phone use in the cities – where it’s more common, and where data usage is also growing, with the “kids never off Facebook”…  Katie Harrison also says there is a flourishing culture of Ugandan bloggers, but they are all in the cities. We are, however, next to the University of Mass Communication (looks about as big as our guest house!) so I would like to pop round there and find out what’s on their syllabus! Any questions you might want to add about technology use/attitudes, etc in Uganda?

And – as we seek to share their stories via digital media – don’t forget to check out Tearfund’s page for our trip, including Liz & Dave‘s blogs.. and feel free to tweet us at #TFBloggers!

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