New media and new technology in East Africa

Access to mobile phones is booming in East Africa. This has seen a growth in social networking fueled by the transition from the PC to the mobile. Online communication is becoming the new trend, but does everyone benefit from this?  

Photo Credit: Pernille Bærendtsen, Nairobi-Klubben

The mobile phone revolution

The developing world’s share of mobile phone subscriptions increased 20% in 2010. In comparison, subscriptions increased by 1.6% in the developed world. According to the Tanzanian daily, The Citizen, 75% of the 42 million population will have access to a mobile phone within the next four years.

The development of access to the internet in Tanzania as well as other East African countries has gone and is going fast, partly due to the access via mobile. Growth in social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook has been fueled by the transition from the PC to the mobile.

For example, access to Facebook via mobile phone in Kenya is relatively cheap (8 Kenyan shilling for 10 MB – ‘which is a little for lot’). Statistics show that mobile users in Kenya spend on average 3.1 hours per week on social networking sites compared to just 2.2 hours on email.

What about the minority, who don’t have mobile phones?

The impact of the access of the mobile phone has little effect, if we are talking:

  • rural areas
  • women
  • people with little or no education.

The articles: ‘Is the ‘mobile phone revolution’ in Africa really for everybody?’ and ‘Mobile phones and the new ‘digital divide’’ couple the positive development with concerns.

In a paper published by Audience Scapes, Gayatri Murthi acknowledges the unprecedented rapid increase of mobile phones in the developing world – but she goes on to show that gender and income disparities mean that by no means everybody is able to reap the benefits.

Men are much more likely to have access to mobile phones than women. In East Africa, a woman is 23% less likely to own a mobile phone than a man. Unequal educational opportunities present another divide.

For example, 93% of Kenyans with formal education had access to a mobile phone, as opposed to 50% of those without. Since a higher proportion of men than women have access to formal education, this reinforces the gender imbalance.

Will new media and new technology liberate the people?

The fact is that people in rural areas, women and the uneducated are less likely to receive information via mobile phone, relying more in interpersonal communication. This challenges assumptions that new technologies are in and of themselves, going to democratize the information environment.

The advantages of new media lie in the ability to not only access information, where ever you might be, but also the ability to contribute with content. But the challenge remains though, that control over technique and access does not necessarily make good content.

On the other hand, online communication facilitates the establishment of online communities. Political activism and civil journalism can be used to voice opinions that might otherwise be silenced if expressed off-line. The strongest case of this might be the role of Facebook to organize demonstrations in the Middle East.