Purchasing consumer durables : the story of one man’s mobile

By | January 19, 2009

This multilingual phone belongs to a young man working with an
environmental NGO. It is his 5th phone in 5 years but two were simply
week long flings. He was the first person in his village of 3000 people
to buy a mobile phone 5 years ago – the Nokia 1100 for a grand sum of
Rupees 3000.

Therein lies a story.

Five years ago, he
tells me, he was on a visit to an old and beloved friend who was then
working in the big city of Jaipur as an artisan making statues out of
stone when he noticed his friend cupping his hand to his ear and
talking out loud. Curious, he discovered that there was something
called a "mobile" and wonder of wonders, it allowed one to speak on the
telephone without wires! He knew then and there that he too had to have
this marvel for his very own. At that time, he was on a salary of
Rupees 2500 and had a young wife to support.

So he gathered up
his intent and went to see a friend who owned a mobile phone shop in
the town near his village. From the many models available he selected
the 1100 – to be honest he said, it felt solid and was the cheapest
phone available then. And he handed over his entire month's pay packet
with the promise to return the following month with the balance of Rs
500. He didn't even have enough for a SIM card he said laughing at his
own youthful determination.

Then, he went back to his father's
house, where he and wife lived along with his mother and two younger
brothers (and now, his own two young sons) and showed his purchase (and
empty pockets) to his father, the head of the household since he was
now unable to contribute his share to their joint household expenses.
He managed on a very tight budget until his next paycheck where again a
significant chunk went to pay off the balance payment as well as
purchase a prepaid SIM card.

Yes, he laughs, my expenses have
increased since I became a mobile phone owner. Airtime? I just have 5
rupees on the phone. But I was the first in my village, ahead of even
the big shots with their landlines (there are 3 or 4 landlines in the
village) and now almost two thirds of the people have a mobile phone.

the first year and a half, he thought he really should upgrade –
mobiles were now available with all kinds of things, cameras, radios
and that little wire thing you stick in your ears, you know? So I went
to the shop and the most affordable model (Rs 2950) with a radio was a
Motorola phone, that slim one – the one with the very big text, I asked
him? (the Motofone, designed specifically for rural India and other BoP
markets) Yes, he said that one. But it didn't last long, I gave it
away, the battery wouldn't last the whole day, look my Nokia can go
upto 5 days without charging, I mean we have electricity wiring in our
home but you know how it is. Then my brother tried to charge it or
whatever and burnt out the socket so when the repair guy told me it
would cost me 600 rupees to fix it I thought to myself I may as well
buy another phone. 

He splurged 5000 (paying only half upfront)
on a fancy LG phone with a camera and all but he returned it within 3
days and bought a Nokia 1200. He said I couldn't bring myself to
contemplate the kind of money I was paying for it and anyway, later I
bought myself a digital camera. I like photography, I can take the
digital camera down to a shop in the town and they download stuff for
me and send it to Jaipur and the very next day I get prints! Rs 20 per
photograph for a full colour print.

Finally he did end up
giving the 1200 away (it only had a colour screen, no radio or
anything) and bought his current phone which has FM radio early in the
spring in 2008. It feels very nice and I'm happy with it he says. You
know, there's folks in the village who have no clue what a mobile is
and what it does but they all know that if you buy one, its gotta be a

I had to grin at that. The Nokia tribe is spread out across continents methinks.

year or the year before he thought that it was time now to buy a
motorcycle (one could almost say that purchasing that very first mobile
phone successfully sparked something upwardly mobile in his psyche – I
have often thought that for all the hullabaloo about the monetary gains
that mobiles have brought amongst the BoP in the developing world what
is often overlooked is the very real intangible benefits that they seem
to inflict almost as a by the way side effect) What was interesting was
that he borrowed 25% of the cash for the motorbike and then paid the
rest off quickly with the largest installments that he could afford as
soon as possible. Why, I asked him, when you could have taken a lot
longer and had a little more disposable income available each month?

I'd only spend that cash and I'd also have debt hanging over me for a
lot longer. This was the money is going towards a capital purchase and
I'm paying it off so I own it completely much faster. Now I also bought
a television set and a satellite dish but you know, i have no idea how
I'm going to pay the Rs 200 a month subscription charges. (I've a
feeling that DishTV is on its way back to the dealer)

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