Low income markets and mobile – The problem of “quality”

When I started my research on low income use of mobile phones in Kenya, my goal was to understand how ICTs are adapted by these actors. But, research often goes in unexpected directions when you start talking to people….!

One unexpected outcome of my research was the level of complaints about mobile. People were running into problems with mobile technologies and services – cheap mobile phone handsets were unreliable, people were getting scammed through mobile money/SMS and mobile phone reception was terrible on some networks. Sure ICTs had created some new benefits and opportunities but not without creating a number of undesirable problems.

Mobile money scams highlight one issue of quality declines that has effected low income users

A new paper [1], now available in the journal Technology in Society, digs a bit deeper into these issues. The paper considers such complaints as symptomatic of a wider challenge of ‘quality’ of innovations in low income markets.

To my knowledge, this is one of the first attempt to explicitly research this negative side of mobile, so I think it is an important piece of work

Why do “quality declines” occur?

Low income users of innovations are highly demanding and pose many challenges for firms and these often link to issues around quality:

  • At the core is price sensitivity of low income users. To reduce prices, firms often ignore issues, or under-invest in products or services so as to save costs and keep prices low.
  • Firms working in low income markets are often less established and may lack experience in quality control (e.g. some generic mobile handset firms, popular amongst low income users were reported to have poor quality control in their production)
  • Low income users use innovations in unanticipated ways, and this can put unexpected stresses and strains on innovations. (e.g. users with low access to electricity may recharge their batteries in ways that reduces battery life)
  • Actors involved in diffusion of innovations often appropriate innovations for low income markets, but this causes quality problems amongst customers (e.g. in Kenya airtime is sometimes sold through over-the-air transfers by entrepreneurs, but this has introduced quality problems)

What is the effect of quality declines?

As can be seen, such quality issues first appear quite subtle and are often missed by consumers within their decision making. Initially, for users who adopt innovations, these quality issues can be seen as a small annoyance which do not outweigh the positive aspects of adoption.

However, quality problems soon become problematic. Quality reduces usefulness, and increases the ongoing running and maintenance costs (e.g. substandard mobiles lead to extra repair costs). This leads to detrimental effects – loss of trust, non-use and even rejection after adoption.

Slow quality declines can also hit a point where their negative effect becomes a market failure and governments may have to enact ’big bang’ legislation. In Kenya this occurred where gradual quality declines around generic mobile contributed to a government led “counterfeit” mobile switch off, where certain generic phones were barred from the mobile network. But, it wasn’t firms who paid the cost, it was low income users who had inadvertently purchased low quality phones who suddenly found their investment unusable.

Reducing problems

Mobile sector firms were all found to have quality standards and police them to some extent but due to pressures, particularly around pricing, firms often neglected less obvious elements of quality where they could relax their standards (e.g. mobile phone reliability, latency in mobile money).

There was also presence of policy which tried to reduce these negative quality effects in the mobile sector. However where statutes existed, they were often not implemented, or implementation was unclear and so such policy lacked teeth.

Another problem found was that both firm and policy implementation on quality did not consider the ways that innovations reach and are used by low income groups, where adaptation by entrepreneurs and users is one cause of quality problems.

A way forward….

In the mobile sector (like many other innovations focussed on low income users) there is a tendency to focus on takeup and early use and most ICT research in developing countries tends to focus on issues relating to adoption and acceptance.

But from a development angle, it is vital that an analysis beyond adoption is undertaken to see what the longer terms effects of innovations are. As can be seen from this research, when this was done in the mobile sector a whole slew of new issues emerged around quality that have barely been discussed or researched before.

As in this case, such research is also useful in that it moves away from overly optimistic analysis of new technology in low income markets to provide a more critical perspective of the issues and advice.

[1] Foster, C., 2014. Does Quality Matter for Innovations in Low Income Markets? The Case of the Kenyan Mobile Phone Sector. Technology in Society, 38, 119–129. 

Full paper (Access required. For a copy email me or lurkers can download a slightly inferior conference paper version from my publication page )

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