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Linda Hooper writes about the potential benefits of affordable communications technology in Kenya

Updated: Aug 28, 2020


Photo of Mathare Slum, Kenya by Linda Hooper


There are numerous stories out there of how the mobile phone has changed people’s lives in Kenya. This assertion is questionable as Kenya is plagued with various inequalities resistant to interventions, a key one being gender. As a country, it continues to fail to provide basic welfare for the majority of its citizens, has weak institutions and questionable democratic processes.  In the middle of the Pandemic, Kenya’s biggest telecom company Safaricom has launched a product sale for smartphones targeted at low income groups. It is dubbed the ‘lipa mdogo mdogo’ plan. This translates to ‘pay little by little’.  Daily wage earners can now buy into internet use for the first time. A £40 smart phone will be paid for at 20 pence a day. This all sounds optimistic and something that would actually work to close the digital divide gap, be it between developed or developing countries or along gender lines. 


Daily wage and informal workers form over 80% of the workforce in Kenya. They have experienced massive job losses and diminishing work opportunities due to lockdowns and curfews as Corona Virus pandemic rages through the world. Kenya’s labour market wasn’t made for a pandemic. The government having decimated welfare provision particularly in the last twenty years has left swathes of the population with scatty and diminished options. The pandemic and efforts to curb Covid19 spread necessitated the lockdown but rescue packages left over 80% of its citizens out. For some it is an instant drop into absolute poverty. With no rights to welfare, they now have the extra burden of no recourse to any public funds. 


Broad welfare provision was an almost achievable dream until the 80s when those plans were decimated by structural adjustment programmes. The neoliberal push to roll back state provision has led to industries’ collapse and many job losses. To pad this gaping abyss of poverty, the 


government’s main thrust  has been to establish small enterprises which make up this informal economy. The state now expects this tactic to develop citizens who are independent and self-sufficient. Available welfare options including basic healthcare, water, sanitation and energy are paid for by the individual at exorbitant prices.  Market provision is costly even as social innovations become prolific. Government schemes are either limited in scope and geography or corrupt. These marginalised segments of the population form the targeted population who will spend 20 shillings more a day to access the phone that will access the already costly internet, the internet, now deemed very important for development. Quite how this applies for this group, considering their disadvantages is not explicitly outlined. 


In the outskirts on Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, nearly two and a half million people live in various slums. Houses made of corrugated steel, wood and mud are crammed in spaces sometimes just enough to fit in a single bed. They are nested between garbage littered paths and open sewers. One encounters curtains of  flies everywhere and the smell of rotting rubbish is overpowering. This is extreme poverty where most people live on less than £1.90 a day. As this is quite low to live on, services and goods are sold in the diminutive to enable access. The irony is that they in many cases pay more for basic requirements like water and electricity when value is actual calculated for their ‘frugal options’.  


Highrise concrete flats occupy the entrance to these slums obscuring the abject poverty of the majority of the dwellers. This is also fraught because planning regulations are corrupt such that every now and then, ill designed uninhabitable architecturally unsound blocks of flats have been known to collapse killing their inhabitants.  Each step takes one deeper into the slum.  One meets children playing in groups or peeping around corners as music blares loudly from different sources. In an open area between the buildings, a couple of young shirtless men, veiled in clouds of smoke bellowing from large sizzling cast iron pans propped on raised charcoal burners cook massive chapatis. They dramatically flip them as they brown. When they are just right,  the final flip and toss adds them to the growing pile that will make lunch time sales.  Women crouch over jikos(charcoal stoves) at ground level stirring various stews, mostly beans which will be eaten alongside the chapatis. Under different conditions, one would salivate at the offered fare. Within the hot sunny smoky atmosphere, what kills the appetite is the knowledge of the depth of poverty and the accompanying hygiene risks which are magnified by water and sanitation scarcity. 


Mary, my contact leads me to a shack where one of my interviewees lives. Rehema is strongly built which is quite a contradiction to the rest of her story and also belies the fact that she has just had a bout of malaria and typhoid. She is happy to welcome me and offers tea. She had five children four of whom have died of a mysterious illness. They have left her with thirteen grandchildren. Her grandchildren are in various levels of schooling from college to kindergarten. She laughs when I ask how she is doing? 


“ I don’t know how I am doing” she says and adds “that is not important. I was sick and I am well now, we leave it all to God”. 


She wakes up every morning to try and make enough to feed her grandchildren. Among her income generating day jobs is hand-washing clothes which earns her about £5-£6 a week. The work is intermittent and subject to clients situations. Her grandchildren are on and off school several times a term due to lack of school fees especially secondary school  fees,  but,  somehow, she manages to keep them moving along the education path. 


Her phone rings, she excuses herself and says she needs to take the call from a local church group which she has been waiting. They raise funds and sometimes food for people like her. The mobile phone and a small old-school ‘unflat’ TV are the only 21st century objects. She says they have managed to collect donations which will enable her two secondary school granddaughters go back to school. She has no recourse to any public funds or support and relies on community goodwill and various grassroot groups. She has no expectations from her local officials or the government. This is the norm she says. 


“ For a year, one of the girls got a government bursary which helped a lot. But when the government changed, we were taken of the list as we are not from the tribe that most of the officials now belong to” she adds, “I am not alone in this, the government seldom helps”


She is glad for whatever she can glean and will get the funds transferred through MPesa. Nearly 70% of all the 50 million Kenyans over 15 years have basic mobile phones. MPesa Kenya’s innovative money transfer system is said to have transformed Kenya as well as other developing countries by enabling previously unbanked people access financial services. It offers cash transfers which are as easy and as quick as sending text messages. MPesa is also used for cash transfers to aid the needy during times of strife as was in the post-election violence period, other civil unrests,  famine and other such cash transfer programmes for the poorest in slums. The money transfer facilitates rural to urban migrants to send their money to their rural families. Retail and services in Kenya are now mostly MPesa payment enabled. MPesa does not need smart phone technology.  It is truly phenomenal but with it comes the attendant pre-existing gender inequalities. 


There is no question that internet connectivity is important but even more important are people living in humane condition and in lives they have a reason to value. Lives that offer choice and opportunities for flourishing, inclusively. Women and girls more than men lack enough to eat, access to education or health facilities, lack of water and sanitation, electricity, and security and a sense of their meaningful contribution to society. A smartphone is a glitzy prop. The real work to create opportunities, bring about equality and change livelihood options in a meaningful way needs critical assessments of the roles of the market, the state and other support systems to establish what really is important for each individuals capabilities to be enhanced. The supposed beneficiaries lack the capacity to convert its technological capacities to significantly improve their livelihood options. It is worth querying who the real beneficiaries of this scheme will be. Will it be the shareholders in Safaricom or will it be the poor, who are mostly women? 

The government has been absent so long, the people have given up on it. They are voiceless and marginalised. The shiny technology works to obscure the real issues that need to be tackled.   

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