Mobile phones and SMS: some data on inclusiveness

I just came across some interesting analysis in a study about SMS usage among low-income populations in Asia, by Juhee Kang (Michigan State University)  and Moutusy Maity (Indian Institute of Management Lucknow). The study uses data collected through a survey conducted in 2011 with 9,066 low-income mobile phone users (bottom of the pyramid) from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Picture by juicyrai on flickr.

Some of the numbers provided should serve as a reminder that having a mobile phone does not necessarily mean that a person uses SMS. In other words, if you think your project is inclusive “because it uses SMS” and “nearly everybody has a mobile phone”, think twice: there’s a chance your project is not as inclusive as you’d like to think.

A few excerpts from “Texting among the Bottom of the Pyramid: Facilitators and Barriers to SMS Use among the Low-income Mobile Users in Asia”:

Of the total 9,066 respondents, 54.3 percent own a personal mobile phone (N=4926).

Approximately thirty two percent (32.2%) of the mobile owners have ever used SMS.

While the distribution of the users is similar between urban and rural, it was found that a large proportion
of the non-users live in rural areas (73%).

The reported daily income was higher among the users (USD2.88, SD=2.80) than among the non-users (USD 1.51, SD=2.58).

The non-users tend to have lower education as 83 percent of the non-users had only primary schooling or no formal education.

The users also have a higher level of access to other media such as TV, radio and personal computers than the non-users.

And some sobering conclusions that development practitioners should bear in mind:

We argue that the quantity of mobile phones in the Global South does not automatically translate into the high quality impact of mobile communication. In fact, the path between mobile access and developmental impact seems to consist of multiple stages of mobile service adoption and utilisation. While many development practitioners currently make positive assessments about the growing penetration of mobile phones in developing countries, it is still uncertain how these mobile phones can bring positive benefits to the poor, and what types of services can lead to socioeconomic development.

Making a mere provision of information via SMS may not reach the mobile owners who use mobile phones mainly for voice calls, in particular the poorest and the least educated of the poor. The study found that the barriers to SMS adoption are beyond the issues of affordability and literacy and the problem lies in the current limitations on usability and the lack of familiarity with text-based communications.

You can read the full study here [PDF].