Kimmage graduate Frances Wallace wrote this short article ahead of presenting in November 2013 on her research as part of her MA in Development Studies. She highlights the benefits and challenges of this relatively new technology in Ghanaian commerce.
Mobile phone technology: a transformative technology for business in Ghana
by Frances Wallace
“In 10 short years, what was once an object of luxury and privilege, the mobile phone, has become a basic necessity in Africa” Paul Kagame, current President of Rwanda
Revolutions in communications – print, telegraph, telephone, radio and the fax machine – have often been at the centre of change in society. No exception is the remarkable rise of the mobile phone in Africa and, more specifically, in Ghana. Today Africa is the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world.
African or Irish, mobile phones have become integral to our way of life. They have transformed the way in which we communicate with each other and how we disseminate information. Many new, creative, practical and promising applications have emerged aside from the basic mobile phone functions, which are impacting on Africa’s socio-economic development.
The mobile phone, a technology so familiar, is used differently depending on local context and is creating new income generating opportunities for some. Micro-entrepreneurs have embraced the mobile phone at an unprecedented rate, eclipsing the land line. Micro-entrepreneurs run their own small business and are recognised as a major source of employment in Africa – vital in securing household income and thus contributing to poverty alleviation. Presently successful micro-entrepreneurs, mobile phone in hand, are a focus of the global development narrative. In light of this proliferation of the use of mobile phones for business, in 2010, as part of my MA in Development Studies at Kimmage Development Studies Centre, I conducted research on how mobile phone technology is being used by micro-entrepreneurs in Ghana.
Mobile phone subscription rates have exploded in Ghana facilitated by the mobile’s exceptional technological nature; using radio waves negating the need for expensive physical infrastructure; where there’s no electricity grid, alternative power sources such as generators are adequate and; high literacy levels are not required for use. Mobile phones are proving accessible to people of differing income levels and, gender, age and education do not constitute barriers to access in the main.
In Ghana, mobile phones are ‘leapfrogging’ the landline due to their comparatively lower cost and faster roll out. Where mobile phones complement landlines in Ireland they act as a substitute for them in Ghana. In Ghana, mobile phones are proving more than a landline alternative. Use and benefits differ greatly between Ireland and Ghana, with shared use and ‘c – an uncompleted call which holds a coded message – more common in Ghana. Indigenous language use (traditionally unwritten) and illiteracy, in part, explain a preference for calling over texting. For some, mobiles are considered a household asset rather than an individual one.
Benefits highlighted in the research include; faster and improved communication promoting closer business contacts; increased profits through a combination of eliminating unnecessary travel time and costs; increased customer numbers, and higher turnover; access to price information and the avoidance of ‘middlemen’. Mobile phones reduce the cost of gathering information, which is up to date, complete and reliable, allowing for better and more timely decision making.
There appears ever increasing evidence of mobile phones in action helping to deliver development results. However the mobile phone is not a ‘magic bullet’ for development and mobile phone subscription rates appear to exaggerate actual use as individuals may share mobile phones, own several handsets or use multiple SIM cards to ensure network coverage and to avail of price offers on different networks. The research highlights further challenges including; poor network service and high maintenance costs associated with cheaper mobile phone handsets. There also appears to be a digital divide emerging between those who have, and have not, a mobile phone or those who remain uncovered by network signal – the m-divide – the latter rendering micro-entrepreneurs at a competitive disadvantage.
Mobile phones are shaped by the country in which they are used and their value is both economic and social, i.e., business and ‘pleasure’.