Jenny Aker: Mobile Phones for Development—Hope vs. Hype

August 02, 2011
Jenny AkerThe Wonkcast is taking a brief summer vacation. We’ve selected this show from our archives- it was originally posted on June 1, 2010. Are mobile phones revolutionizing development in Africa, or have they been over-hyped? My guest this week, Jenny Aker, says the truth is a little of both. Jenny is an assistant professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School and a non-resident fellow here at the Center for Global Development. Her research interests include the impact of communication technologies in poor countries, especially Africa. Mobile phone use has spread across Africa at a stunning pace. The percentage of Africans who could access a mobile phone leapt from only 10% in 1999 to more than 60% by 2008—far outstripping improvements in other infrastructure (roads, clean water, or indeed landline telephones). In a new CGD working paper, to be published later this summer in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Jenny and her co-author Isaac Mbiti describe four main ways phones have been applied to the problems of the poor. In the Wonkcast, we discuss these four applications:
  • Phones allow people to make better use of their social and family networks, which, for many Africans, are the primary (or only) safety nets in case of financial or medical emergency.
  • Phones provide valuable information on far-away commodity or job markets. Farmers can find out how much their crops will fetch in various cities, and job-seekers can learn about opportunities far from home.
  • Phones allow for better management of supply chains. A shopkeeper who finds that he or she is running low on a certain product can call a supplier and request a delivery—avoiding the cost of bare shelves.
  • Finally, phones are being used to better deliver and track basic government services. With a simple SMS, medical data can be passed to a faraway hospital or villagers can report a broken water pump. (Hear a recent interview with Rakesh Rajani, whose organization, Twaweza, uses communications technology to promote government accountability in East Africa.)
While Jenny is enthusiastic about the benefits of mobile phones for development, she cautions that they are only part of the answer. “They’re not the silver bullet,” says Jenny. “They can’t replace certain things like investment in public goods, in health and education. And so we need to have both of those together in order to promote economic growth.” Listen to the Wonkcast to hear the interview. If you have an unused mobile phone, consider donating it to an organization like Hope Phones that can use it (or sell it for parts) to further expand access to communications technologies in the developing world. Have something to add to our discussion? Ideas for future interviews? Post a comment below, or send me an email. If you use iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week. My thanks to Wren Elhai for his very able production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and for a draft version of this blog post.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.