My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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mobile phone credits as currency in Kenya

As everyone knows, Kenya has been in a state of unrest since the corrupt elections in December. Interestingly, a surge of homebrewed cyberactivism has emerged to aid in information flow and resource sharing (as well as political organizing). As an example, take a look at Afromusing’s Twitter stream which contains regular updates from Kenya.

Much of what is going on in Kenya centers around the mobile phone. In Kenya, the mobile is used for everything from communication to financial transactions. More and more of Kenyan society has relied on the phone as a critical part of everyday life. Unfortunately, this has all been disrupted since the election.

Kenyan phone users do not have monthly phone plans; they pay for prepaid credits (like most of the world). Prior to the election, getting credits was easy – they were available in kiosks, stores, bars, anywhere you could imagine. Yet, these venues all closed shop after the election because of the violence and looting. Credits have become a rare commodity and the price has skyrocketed. Credits have also turned into a currency and people are trading credits for food and medicine. Credits are worth more than the government’s currency. Because of difficulties in getting credits to citizens, a service called Pyramid of Peace has popped up to help people send credits to Kenyans.

Part of why people are so shocked about what is going on in Kenya right now is because Kenya was so stable. (I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if Gore supporters would’ve taken to the streets after my country’s corrupt election rather than be so complacent.) When people think about what is necessary when everything goes haywire, they normally talk about food, water, shelter, medicine. What does it mean that telephony has become a central player in people’s lives? What does it mean that access to communication technology is necessary for access to food, water, medicine?

Perhaps it would do all of us some good to consider what it would mean if mobile telephony suddenly became a rare commodity.

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7 comments to mobile phone credits as currency in Kenya

  • Irina

    Communication always has and always will be a rare commodity in crisis situations. There is a very large literature on crisis communication and issues surrounding crisis communication both by officials and emergency responders (or government, military and opposition forces in this case) and private individuals directly or indirectly affected by the crisis. Technological advance has solved some issues but often creates others and it’s reliance on functional infrastructure can often nullify any potential advantages it has simply because it doesn’t work when it needs to most. It’s a large area of research from many directions – people interested in crisis communication, emergency response or political activism for example, are all looking at similar issues of communication needs, demands and scarcity. It may also benefit us all to think of the fact that a lot of technology, mobile telephony included, holds a promise of connectedness that can translate into all kinds of goodness. Often this promise is unfulfilled but when crisis happens, promises sometimes become hopes. Is that a good or a bad thing? I have no idea, but it may be worth thinking about.

  • danah:

    We do have an equivalent here in the Philippines of what’s happening in Kenya surrounding mobile phones: it’s called “GCash,” which is a promotional activity by Globe Telecom (one of the biggest mobile phone companies here). GCash is a “wireless wallet” where transactions like withdrawing money, groceries, and paying bills are done through prepaid phone credits.

    It’s even paid as a “cash prize” in some podunk noontime TV show here: if you dance like a fish out of water or sing out of tune in front of an audience of millions, you get Php5000 worth of GCash. While its dollar equivalent – $123.00 – doesn’t seem like much, it can buy you a lot of stuff here.

    Like a new phone.

    Cellphones are central players in developing countries: not just for communication purposes, but because much of human life surrounds the cellphone. An overseas worker can send money to his/her impoverished family through the mobile phone. It also reinforces a sense of denying poverty, since having a camera phone/smartphone is itself a status symbol (mobile phones are considerably cheap).

    A “life without a cellphone” scenario is evident: it’s sort of doom not only for socialization, but also for meeting basic needs. It is what Simmel calls the “tragedy” of “objective culture,” where material culture completely dictates social life and social survival. Another thing is that institutions no longer exercise control over material culture, but the opposite holds.

    I don’t know what exactly is the solution to a complete and near-total dependence on mobile telephony, but if Kenya is to serve as an example, reinforcing political and economic institutions to prevent the dire consequences of this dependence is important. But then, developing countries investing in industries like mobile telephony, social technology, and so on *may* lead to an economic dependence yet again: it’s a vicious cycle.

  • Abe

    on that side question of Gore, David Graeber has a pretty interesting argument in his “Shock of Victory” article, good food for thought: http://www.infoshop.org/inews/article.php?story=2007graeber-victory

  • I was watching TV recently (unfortunately, I have no idea what it was I had flipped to, so I can’t tell you). The segment I watched was video of a small experiment in France in which teens had had their cell phones taken from them and then been placed in situations such as being locked out of their houses. They were completely incapable of problem solving. It was a little scary.

  • Its really hard to imagine. In todays lifestyle mobile becomes the important part. If the situation comes where theres no mobile then it is really difficult to lead the life smoothly…
    Roadside Assistance

  • Zephoria, Thank you for noting our Pyramid of Peace! We’re applying ourselves to encourage enemies to reach out to enemies and embrace them. January 31 we’re organizing an all day online work session to help Kenyans, please join us at our chat room http://www.worknets.org/chat/ Andrius

  • fredrick aila

    Danah, I will send you an abstract on testing technology acceptance models on mobile phones in Kenya.

    Regards

    Aila