Mobile Phones and Economic Development in Africa

Thursday, November 12, 2009
4:30 PM - 4:30 PM
Wallenberg Theater
  • Jenny Aker

Mobile phones are transforming lives in low-income countries faster than ever imagined.  The effect is particularly dramatic in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, where mobile phones have often represented the first modern infrastructure of any kind.  The iconic image of cell phones in Africa is the market woman, surrounding by her goods while making calls to potential clients in the capital city.  Equally common are the slogans of mobile phone companies promising a better life for those who use it. 

Yet do these images and slogans reflect the reality of what cell phones can do?  Cell phones are being adopted by the rural and urban poor at a surprising rate, far exceeding cell phone companies' projections. An emerging body of research suggests that mobile phones are improving households' access to information and reducing costs, thereby making markets more efficient and increasing incomes.  These impacts have occurred without NGOs or donor investments - but as a positive externality from the IT sector.

Governments, donors and NGOs have noticed the potential of information technology in achieving development goals in a variety of sectors, including agriculture, education, health, financial services and governance.  Mobile phones can greatly facilitate the effectiveness of development programs, but are needed in partnership with the private sector. And while cell phone coverage reaches over 60% of the population in most African countries, other constraints to cell phone adoption - namely pricing and handset cost - should be addressed.

Jenny Aker has worked extensively in Central, North and West Africa for the past ten years for NGOs, international organizations and universities. Her research uses field work and field experiments to better understand field-driven development problems, primarily by teaming up with NGOs and program implementers in an effort to link research with policy and implementation.

Jenny is currently involved in three main areas of research. The first assesses the impact of information technology (mobile phones) on development outcomes, namely farmers’ and traders’ welfare, market performance, labor outcomes, literacy rates and early warning systems. Based upon her previous work in Niger, she is collaborating with Catholic Relief Services in Niger on Project ABC (Alphabétisation de Base par Cellulaire), which uses cell phones as a learning tool to allow literacy participants to read and write in their local languages via SMS. The project takes a rigorous impact evaluation approach, assessing the impact of cell phones on literacy rates and farmers’ marketing behavior. Her second area of research involves assessing the impact of climate change on farmer-herder conflicts in the Sahel, with a particular focus on Mali. Her third area of research evaluates the impact of specific development interventions -- including food aid distributions, local purchases, and cash vouchers – on producers’ welfare and market performance in the Sahel.

In September 2009, Jenny joined Tufts University as an Assistant Professor in the Economics Department and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.