Beware the Mobile Phone Hardware Quality Divide for Rural African Women

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We all can celebrate the massive adoption of mobile phones across the African continent, and be astonished at the rapid uptake of smartphones in countries like Kenya.

  • 90% of Kenyans have a mobile phone,
  • 65% have a smartphone,
  • 99% of Internet subscriptions are for mobile devices.

Yet before you get too excited, new research on Kenyan women’s rural realities from Susan Wyche and Jennifer Olson of Michigan State University, reveal a mobile handset hardware quality divide between genders.
Hardware Quality Digital Gender Divide
They confirm previous findings that rural Kenyan women are receiving secondhand phones as a gift from urban-based family members in major cities like Kisumu or Nairobi. Also common is for a woman to be gifted her husband’s or boyfriend’s used phone when he upgrades to a new Chinese smartphone, which can be about $30 in local markets.
Susan and Jennifer found that rural Kenyan women predominantly have bar-shaped feature phones called kadudu, which provide voice, text messaging, and basic multimedia and Internet capabilities. These phones are used for a variety of services:

  • To send greetings and “please call me” SMS messages to family
  • To receive M-Pesa remittances
  • To listen to the radio, and to use as a flashlight.

However, these old, used handsets present multiple barriers to effective usage by rural Kenyan women. The mobile phones are often:

  • Riddled with maintenance problems, including  poor batteries, broken screens, missing buttons, worn number pads.
  • Difficult to hold, so women carry them in purses worn around their necks, tucked into their bras, or folded into cloths tied around their heads or waists
  • Often dropped into water sources like toilets, washbasins, puddles, or broken, after falling out of tucked-away places.

The Old Battery Challenge
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Batteries present a significant challenge to women’s ownership of mobile phones. Their old, secondhand phones usually don’t come with the original battery, if one at all. Replacement phone batteries are usually inexpensive, but low quality and tend to become bloated over time due to heat and overcharging.
This means that most batteries will not hold a charge after a few months, and women need to buy two or three batteries per year, adding to the expense of owning a mobile phone, which already includes buying the mobile phone itself, and buying airtime.
During Susan and Jennifer’s fieldwork, they found that rural Kenyan women were reluctant to use their mobile devices for any length of time to preserve battery life, and turned off phones at night and when not in use.
Hardware Implications for Mobile Interventions
Kenya is arguably a leading mobile usage country in Africa, yet if rural women there have significant used hardware issues, we need to be very careful when we assume that access to a mobile phone means access to a working mobile phone anywhere on the continent.
Like in other areas of digital access, there is a hardware quality gender divide too. This can reduce the likelihood that rural women will have their phone on to receive your SMS, USSD, or IVR message, or be able to respond to either even if they do.
The hardware gender divide also means that interventions assuming smartphone usage may actually exacerbate gender inequality – an outcome no one wants, least of all, rural Kenyan women.
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