Craze over mobile phone must be one Kenyan ‘peculiar habit’

Monday February 29 2016



More by this Author

Those of us who have lived our entire middle-class lives in Nairobi often forget that there is another Kenya out there that has largely been untouched by modern civilisation.

Nairobi is undoubtedly one of the most cosmopolitan and modern cities in Africa, but its glitz, glamour, skyscrapers, shopping malls, amenities, and fast pace (except in traffic, of course) are accessible to less than half of its population.

Most Nairobians live desperate lives in densely packed slums or low-income tenements.


Outside the city’s borders, where 90 per cent of Kenya’s population resides, is another world of deep deprivation and stunted growth.

Tana River county, which I visited last week, is one such place. Here, most of the population is as far from Nairobi in terms of lifestyle as Mars is from the planet Earth.

Pastoralists and agriculturalists are often in conflict over water and land resources.

On any school day, young boys are seen herding cows or just sitting around near mud hovels and the threat from hyenas and snakes is an everyday reality.

Many of these children have seen huge electricity poles passing through their villages, but have not experienced electricity in their homes.

The county has huge agricultural potential, given that the Tana and Galana rivers pass through it, but agricultural projects have so far not yielded huge harvests, so food insecurity remains a constant problem.

Hence most of the people living here remain dirt-poor.


However, I am willing to bet that almost all the adults in this county have a mobile phone, which presents a contradiction that I believe is uniquely Kenyan.

The mobile phone and mobile phone services have seen such spectacular success in Kenya that researchers from all over the world are trying to understand how a poor country like Kenya became captivated by this type of communication technology.

Some say that the mobile phone arrived in Kenya at a time when the country was ready for this type of technology.

Others say that innovations such as mobile money transfers by leading mobile phone providers and the low cost of owning and operating mobile phones filled a gap that was left by the formal banking sector and the State-run telephone company.

Others believe that Kenyans’ enthusiasm for mobile telephony reflects an oral culture where voice communication is more important than communication through the written word.

This could explain why we Kenyans are so poor at replying to email messages, something I have never understood, given that most official business today is conducted via email and not responding could cost someone a customer or a business deal.


What this success story does not explain, however, is why Kenyans are willing to invest in a mobile phone but not in other services, such as sanitation.

Why has mobile phone connectivity gained more importance than toilets?

A recent survey by Afrobarometer shows that while 98 per cent of Kenyans have access to a mobile phone, less than 20 per cent have access to proper toilets.

Other studies have shown that only 8 per cent of the country’s population uses a flush toilet, which means that most of the Kenyans who own a mobile phones use a pit latrine or defecate in the open.

And so it is very likely that most of the Standard One pupils who are about to receive their first laptop computers have never used a proper toilet. (And yet some of us believe we are a middle-income country!)

Research by Nation Newsplex found that only one in eight rural Kenyans has access to piped water in their house, compared to 100 per cent in Egypt and Mauritius. 

It is not all gloom and doom though — the good news is that almost all Kenyans have access to roads, whether they are paved, murram, or tar.

And 83 per cent of Kenyans have access to electricity (which makes sense because without electricity they would not be able to operate their beloved mobile phones).

However, only one in three Kenyans is actually connected to the electricity grid.

In summary, most Kenyans have eagerly adopted new information and communication technologies, but have yet to gain access to proper public or private toilets.