People forgoing meals to buy airtime


Kenyans are going hungry to make sure they buy airtime for their mobile phones  and doing most of their texting and long calls at night, according to a survey that documents the country’s ‘peculiar calling habits.’

 The survey commissioned by the World Bank says mobile telephony has become important even to the poorest, and some are forgoing  meals or opting for cheaper food to save a little for airtime.

 The study whose findings will be released next week and which was conducted in six counties over a six-month period says poor Kenyans are also choosing to walk, sometimes for long distances and use the saved bus fare to buy airtime.

 “It is worrying that sometimes  sacrificing leads to missed meals, not just for the individual but for their families as well,” says Leonida Mutuku on of the researchers who did the study.

 Ms Mutuku says such reallocation of resources and diversion of expenditure within the limited household budgets can possibly give rise to negative social and health impacts.

Texting is reported to be minimal in the morning, but picks up in the afternoon. It peaks at night raising questions whether much of the messaging is just idle chatter or business oriented.

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 However, most callers follow a similar pattern. Despite most calls being made in the mornings, those made at night take much longer averaging six minutes compared to four minutes during daytime.

 The survey found that calling or receiving calls and texting as the most favoured uses of a mobile phone followed closely by money transfer services and borrowing of credit, which is mostly done at night.

 Almost half of the 800 people interviewed said they constantly sent money to friends and relatives back home. Other studies indicate that about 40 per cent of M-PESA money transactions involve money sent to parents while eight per cent is transferred to children.

 The study done by iHub Research and Research Solutions Africa, says respondents were in agreement that mobile telephony has brought them close to their families as it had increased contact with those living far away.

 The team which was targeting poor Kenyans earning about Sh200 a day says recent switch-off of about 1.5 million counterfeit mobile phones has adversely affected this group.

 “This regulatory move essentially pushes the poor backwards in terms of mobile phone access, as many of those who had counterfeit mobile phones will not be able to replace their mobile handsets in the short-term,” says Ms Mutuku.

But it says that mobile telephony is not all bed of roses. The biggest problem encountered by users is loss of money while it is being transferred and most say service providers offer very little assistance if this happens.

 “Somebod withdrew my money without my knowledge and when I followed through the service provider they said maybe I had given the person my phone. I stopped following,” says one study respondent.

 The other complaint is how it has become easy to lie even to close friends and relatives through mobile phones. “The phone has contributed to evil in the society especially through lies. Phones have contributed to a lot of lies,” says another study participant.

 According to Ms Mutuku the respondents were mostly interested in receiving health information through their phones followed by issues touching on education.

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