Youth, mobility and mobile phones in Africa: findings from a three-country study

Youth, mobility and mobile phones in Africa: findings from a three-country study

The expansion of mobile phone use in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly over the last five years, has been remarkable in terms of speed of adoption, spatial penetration and, not least, the fact that this is an essentially spontaneous development firmly embedded in private sector activity. Country-level adoption and usage rates suggest that, in many countries, mobile phone use, even in poor households, is rapidly becoming an everyday part of life. Much of this use is based on shared access, rather than ownership, but for millions of very poor children and young people1 the mobile phone is now perceived as an essential requisite: an object of desire and a symbol of success.

This paper we examine mobile phone use by young people across 24 sites in three countries, Ghana, Malawi and South Africa, drawing on intensive qualitative and survey research, and relate this to issues of gendered physical mobility.

Findings point to significant variations between the three study countries and between urban and rural locations within them. There is also, of course, variation within individual sites, since the circumstances of young people living in one neighbourhood can differ quite substantially, depending not only on gender and age but also on factors such as family structure and socio-economic circumstances.

Nonetheless, some trends can be discerned from this socio-spatial analysis which build on findings from earlier (often single site or single country) studies in Africa: in particular, the growing importance of phones as urban-rural connectors, enhancing resource flows and young people’s construction of network capital, and concerns about their less positive aspects, not least the potential for encouraging or supporting illicit activities such as robbery or possibly dangerous underage sexual liaisons.

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