Implications of the democratization of technology in rural Kenya

By | June 1, 2012
Kathanzweni, Makueni District, Kenya

As many of you are aware, I spent the first three months of this year immersed in rural Kenya taking a closer look at household consumer behaviour. Among other thing, my observations led me to write the following:

Thus, it can be said that as mobile phones rapidly overtook radio and television’s role as the “connectors” to the outside world even while prices dropped for both phones and for solar, the biggest shift in the market has been the ‘democratization’ of modern technology among the mass majority of the rural population.

While the rest of the paragraph led to company specific interest areas, this sentence has stayed with me, seeking further exploration of the implications of this finding, which I was unable to continue in the context of the project report.

What does it mean, this democratization of modern technology in rural Kenya?

In a very short span of time, modern energy using devices such mobile phones, radios that use memory sticks, portable DVD players etc have become commonplace in “African villages” even though the reach of modern infrastructure such as the electric grid has lagged behind demand. This has led to the rise of alternate energy solutions, which in turn have become more and more affordable (and thus, ubiquitous) as Chinese imports and increasing demand have led to dropping prices.

Thus, its not just mobile phones which have changed the landscape in rural Africa, but also their support systems in the form of affordable energy solutions, whether directly owned and installed such as a solar home system or pay as you go by using a ‘charging shop’.

This in turn has raised the expectations of the rural customer base, not simply the professional elite such as pastors, schoolteachers or civil servants. Now even subsistence farmers aspire to own consumer appliances (and their power sources) as market forces put these symbols of modern technology and modern energy within their ambitious reach. When you add Kenya’s low cost of mobile services to the mix, you get a very unique set of circumstances that sets the country apart from its neighbours.

What will be the implications of this “democratization” of modern technology among this population demographic? And how does this set Kenya apart from her neighbours in the region?

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