Book Talk speaker examines mobile phone opportunities in rural Kenya

February 21, 2022

Speaking at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Global South’s inaugural Book Talk, Leah Jerop Komen, deputy director of research and postgraduate studies at Daystar University, examined the introduction of mobile technology in rural Kenya and how it has impacted the social and economic development of the communities adopting it.
Komen drew insights from her book Mobile Assemblages and Maendeleo in Rural Kenya to explain how interactions between mobile telephone users in rural Kenya and their specific domestic contexts have created new ways of organizing and conducting everyday socio-economic activities, promoting co-presence and interpersonal communication, and enhancing kinship ties and social connectedness.
In analyzing how the mobile phone has encouraged a sense of community, Komen said mobile sharing is a way in which community relations facilitated greater access to the mobile. “There were prerequisites, and these were trust, family relations, or friendship, so they were able only to share with those who they thought had their back and may not be mysterious,” noted Komen, who gave an example of three friends sharing the antennas and batteries of their phones to listen to the radio.
Allowing farmers and entrepreneurs living in rural areas to easily send and receive money is another economic opportunity created by the increased adoption of mobile phones, according to Komen. She told a story of a woman who used the money her son sent her through her a mobile money transfer app to build a house for her family and pay her children’s school tuitions, noting that, “with users’ willingness to appropriately channel their money, the mobile phone can alleviate poverty and enable economic development in these [rural] areas.”

Capturing how the mobile phone has facilitated interpersonal communication and group communication, Komen said, “the mobile phone has cut the unnecessary distance and at the same time has brought meetings close virtually.” She pointed to the story of a parliament member who, in efforts to maintain communication with the people in the rural areas, used her phone to coordinate meetings with clan leaders and meet with women groups.
While the introduction of the mobile phone in rural Kenya has enabled multiple socio-economic opportunities, Komen made a case to analyze these stories from a diachronic type of development, Maendeleo, that focuses on human technology's interrelationships. “When you take it [the opportunities] as synchronic, then it means the technological determinism is subtly -- maybe even loudly-- being pushed,” said Komen. “But when you take development as diachronic, then you give room for multiple interpretations as people experience things differently.”