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Mobile phones: challenges of capability building

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The rapid spread of mobile phones has increased access to an enormous range of applications that are highly valued by urban and rural populations in developing countries. The diffusion of the mobile phone has been faster than any other information and communication technology in human history, but the capabilities for using this technology to its full potential have been slower to develop. Part of the explanation for this lies in the overwhelming emphasis on supply-side initiatives. Diffusion studies, including those focusing on the ‘bottom-of-the-pyramid’, can tell us about the take-up of mobile phones and some of the characteristics of use and of users, but they cannot tell us whether access to mobiles is contributing to poverty alleviation in developing countries. Although problems of access and cost continue to present barriers to take-up, mobile communication is providing a new basis for entrepreneurship and social innovation. However, the complex challenge of enabling people to acquire the knowledge essential for developing innovative applications that are responsive to their local needs has is being neglected. The necessary digital skills include operational expertise and an understanding of information structures when the mobile phone is used as a medium for communication. They also include information search and selection skills, communication and content creation skills, and strategic skills needed to use mobile phones in ways that support individual or professional goals. The widespread failure to acquire these abilities is limiting opportunities for empowerment through the use of mobile phones. This paper considers gaps in the existing evidence-base, examines disconnections between policy and practice, and highlights new opportunities for the development of digital capabilities for mobile phone-based entrepreneurship.

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