Sociology

Boiling down all the Worlds Problems



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            Whether you’re an international businessperson or a Star Trek fan waiting for news about the next movie, a cell phone is indispensible. In Canada alone, two thirds of the population aged 16-60 partake in the daily activity of owning and using a cell phone—and this is below the international average for developed countries (16 S). More than just simple calls or text messages, owning a cell phone means you are plugged into a network of high speed information 24/7. In a world where information moves that fast, having constant access to said information could mean the difference between a highly profitable business decision and a missed opportunity. This is just as true for Nigerian smallholders as it is for multi-national corporations.

New technologies such as the IPhone and Smartphone have changed the scope of what one can do with a cell phone. For the purposes of this essay, cell phone will be used interchangeably with mobile phone, cellular device, and ICT. I will also be focusing specifically on Nokia cell phones.  It is also important to note that even though information communication technology (ICT) is not a category exclusive to cell phones, when I discuss ICT’s in terms of African development, I am talking primarily about cell phones—taking a similar approach to Mukhebi in his report “Linking Farmers to Markets through Modern Information and Communication Technologies in Kenya.” (10 Mukhebi).

The increasing number of cell phone users in Nigeria will be called the “mobile phone revolution.” This refers to the fact that wireless communication (i.e. cell phones) infrastructure is now growing at a greater rate than landlines in most parts of Africa. “About 59 percent of users are in developing countries, making cell phones the first telecommunications technology in history to have more users there than in the developed world.” (17 Sullivan). This Mobile Phone Revolution is fraught with exorbitant potential, but also many problems.

            The first issue is how to continue to get cell phones in the hands of African microentrepeneur and, almost more importantly, how to do this in an affordable way. The reason the second part is the real problem is because there is already huge growth in the cell phone market in Nigeria; however, the growth isn’t enough, as was made most apparent by the nationwide boycott of cell phones in 2003 (5 Borzello). The reasons for the boycott as stated by GSM Subscribers' and Phone Users' Association, the organization that called the boycott, were exploitative pricing, along with poor quality and inconsistent service (5 Borzello). This means, to a certain extent, that the problem is not simply pricing but a respect for the Nigerian consumer population on the part of the corporations involved. This leads to the second issue.

            Nokia is the single largest producer of cell phones in the entire world. Last year they had a market share of roughly 40.7% (13 Rickler) and that was a decline from prior years. They are a company primarily based in Finland and their influence on the national economy is unparalleled. Nine years ago, alone, the company accounted for roughly one quarter of all Finnish exports, one third of all research and development expenditure, and its annual turnaround was similar to the government’s entire budget (1 Ali-Yrkko. Since then, they have only been growing (1 Ali-Yrkko). Nokia is such a large part of the Finnish economy the decisions they make on a daily basis are potentially life altering for the entire Finnish population. Given their business model, they have become increasingly more dependent upon a network of foreign markets and companies (1 Ali-Yrkko). This means that the Finnish economy is increasingly more volatile and less and less under the control of its government and consequently its people. As Nokia expands into the largely untapped Nigerian and African market this growth means more dependence for the Finnish people. This is another issue to take into consideration as we work towards empowering Africans with mobile technology.

            The cell phone network, as has been mentioned, is a global one. Any handheld unit you could buy at the Rideau Centre may well have been designed in Finland. And was probably manufactured in a number of countries where Finland outsources jobs. Nokia was not always an international company, but as Nokia began to grow in the early 90s and the Finnish economy got comparatively smaller, they decided it would be best to diversify (1 Ali-Yrkko). They began mainly in Europe, but eventually extended their business to North America. This fact perhaps best reflects the increasingly international nature that owning a cell phone is taking on. The information that is shared over cellular networks thanks to advancements in technology is incredibly fast and comes from even the most remote parts of the world.

This is increasingly true as the greatest market growth over the past decade has not been in the European or North American Market, but in the Sub-Saharan African market with an average rate of growth between 2000 and 2005 at 50% (4 Bhatia).  One could go so far as to say that the mobile phone embodies the modern globe. Its networks consist of locally run cell sites and connect any owner of relatively cheap hand held devices to any other member of the network in the world.

            The bottom line is that the phone you buy here in Canada is a part of a global commodity chain that centres in countries like Finland, and is increasingly growing into parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, exemplified by the Nigerian market.

            At its simplest, it is important we ask ourselves what a cell phone is. The answer: a method of two-way communication. Let us take it one step further and ask ourselves what two-way communication really is. The answer: the basis of human relationships. It is for this reason that, in dealing with global questions of the cell phone, our definition of politics needs to start with “the personal is the political” (6 Bryson). Though this is largely a feminist sentiment, it is not exclusively one. And in fact, no special attention need necessarily be cast on the situation of women when we consider the definition that politics is simply the sum of human relationships and interactions and the power dynamic therein (15 Shively).

            The global commodity chain of cell phones begins with the harvesting of metals and petroleum, which for a good part happens in Africa where the required materials are abundant (9 Maps Of The World). Because the private sector is often underdeveloped in these countries, it is the governments of various parts of Africa such as oil rich Angola, or lead and zinc rich Namibia that broker the sales. Raw materials are sold at prices set by speculators in the developed world. This gives special institutions, who assess commodity futures, a very integral role in the chain. From there the materials are purchased by various in sundry companies owned by or linked to Multi National Corporations like Nokia. Of course though, any international transaction is subject to the laws of various countries and international agreements and organizations such as the WTO.

            What’s interesting though is how much of all of these massive transactions are based on individuals and their decisions. At the appraisal level, it is very much the work of a select group of people’s personal views, experiences, and teachings. At the Nokia level, they have people specially hired to travel the world and simply interact with people from all walks of life (8 Corbett) in order to figure out what these people need in a phone. This puts potential consumers in the developed world in a very interesting position for the first time in history. A position where they do not have to take whatever is not fit for the developed world, or whatever is left over or recycled. A position where what they say matters, where they have some power.

            This essay is primarily about how cell phones are shifting power on a global scale, but to understand exactly what that means we need to look at what power really is. For the purposes of this essay, power will be defined simply as great influence, that is to say, the ability to affect the decisions of others with one’s own actions (2 American Heritage Dictionary).

            In T. M. S. Ruge’s “Africa’s Booming Tech Space Will Define The Continent’s Future,” the reader is given a good hard look at a population very few thought was worth investing in (14 Ruge). Now, the consumer population of Nigeria and neighbouring agricultural countries has a voice in the form of the fastest growing cell phone market in the world. Nowhere was this more apparent than the boycott of 2003 (12 Obadare). This is a clear example of how increased connectivity reinforces democratic strength. The news of the boycott was actually spread by text message taking advantage of free text messages the large companies had offered its African clients (5 Borzello). Not only does this show an amusing irony, but it demonstrates the Nigerian people’s ability to organize themselves and gain power through the use of cell phones. 

What’s more, the microentrepeneur of rural Nigeria are increasingly gaining a worldwide voice—literally-thanks to the cell phones themselves. Those businesspeople with cell phones now have to travel far less to set prices and sell products. They now have much quicker access to market information (10 Mukhebi). What it comes down to is ‘knowledge is power” (3 Bacon) and that’s exactly what Nigerian microentrepeneur are getting.

            With all of that being said, it is still impossible to avoid the fact that the price setters and the producers of cell phones are in the North. This is the primary thesis of P. Carmody’s "A New Socio-Economy in Africa? Thinegration and the Mobile Phone Revolution." (7 Carmody). Thinegration refers to the fact that while mobile phones and other ICTs are allowing Africa to integrate into the world economy, because they are only on the consuming end of the cell phone commodity chain, this new integration only reinforces Africa’s position of dependence (7 Carmody). What this study fails to take into account is that a country can remain in a position of dependence until it is capable of standing on its own two feet and then it can set its own terms. That is very similar to the growing up of a human being and so the term “infant industry” is almost poetically applicable to the case of Africa and the international cell phone market.

            Though the origin of human speech is largely debated, its importance is almost universally recognized. Our ability to communicate with each other is at the core of all human achievement and invention. Nokia knows how essential the service they provide is and as a result they have grown internationally, creating a network of dependence and consequently volatility. As cell phone customers it is very important that we support competition in the industry by buying from smaller cell phone companies. It is also very important, because Nokia phones are potentially 90% recyclable (11 Nokia) that we dispose of our cell phones responsibly. Giving them to certified recycling depots. Finally, as the entrepreneurs and decision makers “of tomorrow,” it is important that we start the international conversation now. If we use the technology available to us we can form strong and mutually beneficial relationships with the microentrepeneur and driven human capital of the developing world. 

Bibliography

Borzello, Anna. "BBC NEWS | Africa | Nigerians Call Cell Phone Boycott." BBC News - Home. BBC, 19 Sept. 2003. Web. 28 Sept. 2010. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3122198.stm>.

Carmody, P. "A New Socio-Economy in Africa? Thinegration and the Mobile Phone Revolution." Google Scholar HTML Version. Institute for International Integration Studies, Feb. 2009. Web. 27 Sept. 2010. <http://74.125.155.132/scholar?q=cache:ZKU61KmPs7QJ:scholar.google.com/ nokia rural nigeria mobile phone revolution&hl=en&as_sdt=2001&as_ylo=2000&as_subj=soc>.

Economy Sullivan, Nicholas P. "You Can Hear Me Now." Réseau De Bibliothèques - Library Network. Jossey-Bass, 2007. Web. 27 Sept. 2010. <http://site.ebrary.com.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/lib/oculpda/docDetail.action?docID=10300810>.

Ito, Mimi, Paul Levinson, Katrin Verclas, and Phillipe Khan. "Cell Phone, The Ring Heard Around the World - Cellphones in Africa : Doc Zone : CBC-TV." CBC.ca - Canadian News Sports Entertainment Kids Docs Radio TV. 29 May 2010. Web. 27 Sept. 2010. <http://www.cbc.ca/doczone/cellphones/africa.html>.

LaFraniere, Sharon. "Cellphones Catapult Rural Africa to 21st Century." The New York Times [New York] 25 Aug. 2005. Print.

http://busn.uco.edu/dgoudge/Africas%20growing%20Cell%20phone%20market.pdf  

Mukhebi, A. W., J. Kundu, A. Okolla, M. Wumbua, W. Ochieng, and G. Fwamba. "23-27." Linking Farmers to Markets through Modern Information and Communication Technologies in Kenya. Proc. of AAAE, KACE, Nairobi. 2007. 1-5. Print. http://www.aaae-africa.org/proceedings2/001/Mukhebi.pdf

Obadare, Ebenezer. "Playing Politics with the Mobile Phone in Nigeria: Civil Society, Big Business & the State." Review of African Political Economy 33.107 (2006): 93-111. Jstor. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2010. Web. 27 Sept. 2010. < http://www.jstor.org.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/stable/4007114?seq=1>

Rasiah, Rajah, and Banji Oyelaran-oyeyinka. "Reducing the Critical Divide: A Critical Focus." Society.nhu. United Nations University, 2004. Web. 27 Sept. 2010. <http://society.nhu.edu.tw/jccic/07/fu/7-01.pdf>.

Ruge, T. M.S. "Africa’s Booming Tech Space Will Define the Continent's Future - The Globe and Mail." Home - The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail, 10 May 2010. Web. 27 Sept. 2010. <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/africas-booming-tech-space-will-define-the-continents-future/article1563090/singlepage/>.

Sullivan, Kevin. "In War-Torn Congo, Going Wireless To Reach Home." Washington Post [Washington] 9 July 2006: A01.  <http://www.kiwanja.net/database/article/article_congo_war.pdf>



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