Mobile Phone-Use on the African Savanna


28 July 2017 | Timothy D. Bair| MediaShift

In Remote African Tribes, Mobile Phones Are Amazing Tools, but There’s a Downside

“With the explosion of mobile technology in developing countries, a common narrative is that phones are transforming poor people’s lives. Phones, the story goes, reduce the effort required to search for information and make commerce more efficient.

As technology has spread, so has research on its effects. With support from the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, I study how Maasai pastoralists in Tanzania respond to various issues, including biodiversity conservation, globalization and technology. I and others are learning that mobile phones are changing lives, but perhaps not as much as some may think.

Phones As New Tools

Recent studies have found that phones are critical new technologies to combat pastoralists’ greatest challenge: uncertainty. For generations, herders have moved across the landscape in search of forage and water for their livestock.

Social networks are paramount for sharing information, but communication has long been challenging. Now, with phones, herders can share information easily, quickly and over great distances.

In Benin and Ethiopia, researchers have found that phones help facilitate social connections for Fulani and Borana herders, respectively. But efforts to leverage phones for broader economic gains are hampered by illiteracy and limited cellular coverage.

Cell towers, few and far between, provide patchy coverage in rural Tanzania.Among Maasai herders in Kenya, one study found that phone use is widespread but people largely communicate within their existing social networks. Establishing new connections is much less common.

Another study from Kenya found that Samburu herders don’t rely on phones during drought periods. It’s risky to move herds in search of water, and herders fear being misled by informants about where valuable resources are.

In The Hands Of The Maasai

Recently, collaborators and I interviewed hundreds of Maasai in northern Tanzania to learn how they use mobile phones. In 2010, half of the households in our study area used phones. Now virtually all households do.

As one of our respondents commented, “The phone is one of the best tools we have ever seen.”

In our new paper, Joel Hartter and I describe how Maasai are integrating phones into most aspects of their lives.

Like earlier studies, we found that Maasai use phones to support traditional herding activities. Herders call each other to locate resources or notify others when health emergencies arise. We also learned that they use phones for many other activities, including getting information that helps them farm.

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