Two panel sessions exploring the growing linkages between travel/transport organisation and mobile phones in Africa were held at the African Studies Association biennial conference at Sussex University in September 2014, organised and chaired by Gina Porter from Durham University and sponsored by the DFID-funded Africa Community Access Programme.

The remarkable expansion of mobile phone networks in Africa is bringing a tangible new dimension of connectivity into transport and access equations on the ground: now-feasible interactions between virtual and physical mobility are helping to reshape access potential, even in many hitherto remote areas (especially where linked to the rapid uptake of transportation modes such as the motorcycle-taxi). Phones can cut travel costs and time, reducing the number of long, potentially hazardous road journeys on poor roads in badly maintained vehicles, in regions with among the world’s highest accident rates and where highway robbery and other types of harassment associated with travel may be widespread. Better distance management through phone use may be particularly closely associated with populations with very low disposable incomes, and/or whose physical mobility is limited, for instance by disability, infirmity, age or gender. A write-up of these sessions, by Gina, who will give the keynote Hoyle Lecture speech at next year’s RGS-IBG conference, follow.

Six papers were presented, all exploring the emerging linkages between mobile phones, transport and mobility in Africa, but in diverse contexts: maternal health, trading, older people’s lives, youth, and improving road safety. In the final session, reflections on emerging themes and issues were presented by the panel discussant, John Hine. That this is a fruitful time to revisit the access challenges characteristic of many parts of the continent was confirmed by the lively debate which characterised the meeting.

Session 1

Extending the reach – the interaction between mobile technology, transport and maternal health

Caroline Barber, Silvia Poggioli

Transaid, London, UK

Mobile phone providers have predicted that by 2017, 334 million smart phones will have been sold in Africa. Coverage is rapidly increasing and handsets are becoming increasingly affordable. This presentation will share Transaid’s direct experiences of how the prevalence of mobile phones in rural Africa can support efforts to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity.  Interventions that involve transporting pregnant women to health often have a critical dependency on mobile technology.  In Northern Nigeria an ‘Emergency Transport Scheme’ is in operation whereby the National Union of Road Transport Workers provides timely and affordable transport to pregnant women.  In the majority of cases the driver is contacted through a mobile phone, steps having been taken to encourage transport and communication to be considered as part of birth preparedness planning.  In Gombe state, Northern Nigeria, a calls centre has been established to link pregnant women with the ‘ETS’ drivers.  Being able to make this ‘direct’ contact with reliable and trusted drivers may help to remove barriers at a household level and potentially reduce security concerns associated with travelling at night to health facilities.
In March 2014 Transaid organised an emergency transport workshop in Tanzania which brought a range of leading researchers, practitioners and other key stakeholders from over ten countries.  This meeting provided rich and valuable insights into the enabling role that mobile technology can have in facilitating emergency transport and also explored some of the limitations.  This presentation will share highlights and emerging issues from the Tanzania workshop.

Mobile phones, motor cycle taxi operations and rural livelihoods: user and operator perspectives from Tanzania

Gina Porter, Amleset Tewodros, Flavian Bifandimu, Mark Gorman, Elisha Sibale, Abdul Awadh, Lorraine Kiswaga

In Kibaha district, Tanzania, emerging connectivities associated with the rapid expansion of motorcycle-taxi services and mobile phone usage are bringing substantial change to the lives of the rural poor, both as users and operators of technology.    In remote parts of this district, where inhabitants in the past often had to wait hours or days for a vehicle to appear, it is often now possible to call one of the young men who operate motorcycle-taxi services from the taxi stands found in each village and to be riding pillion en route to a required destination in a matter of minutes.

In-depth interviews with the young male motorcycle operators and with older users [men and women] and an associated small survey in ten rural settlements in Kibaha district form the base for an examination of the interconnections between usage of mobile phones and motorcycle taxis and the ways in which these are now helping to improve distance management and change the shape of rural livelihoods.  The discussion includes a consideration of the safety issues associated with motorcycle operations from both operator and user perspectives.   The paper concludes with some broader reflections on similar developments in phone/transport connectivity across sub-Saharan Africa and associated policy issues.

Mobile phone technology status and maternity health service access in rural Tanzania

Daniela Rodriguez, Kate Molesworth, Don de Savigny

Tanzania’s latest reported maternal-mortality-ratio remains high at 454 per 100,000 and nationally, less than half of all births are attended by skilled health-personnel. In order to raise skilled attendance at delivery and to reduce delays in obstetric emergencies, access to health facilities during the pregnancy needs to be improved. Communications are essential components in the chain of events to improve maternal-health services and use of mobile-phone-technology (MPT) has potential for reducing delays in reaching appropriate maternal care.

Within the frame of the Health-Promotion-and-Systems-Strengthening-Project (HPSS), funded by the SDC and implemented by the Swiss TPH, this study explores MPT knowledge and use relating to accessing maternity services. Participatory approaches on 272 participants were used.

77% of the respondents reported that their household owned a mobile-phone. The study explored battery-charging sources, traveling times to an airtime vendor, airtime expenses and skill in using the phone. A significant gap in MPT use between men and women was identified in the sample. Women own fewer phones, are less skilled in their use and spend half that of men on airtime. Only 3% of the pregnant women reported using a mobile phone to assist their travel arrangements to a health facility.

MPT is widely used in Tanzania. Therefore has the potential to enhance communications between rural isolated areas and maternal services; that might reduce delays, particularly during obstetric emergencies. However, women’s use of MPT is less than that of men and they are unaware of it’s potential when seeking maternity-health services.

Session 2

Mobile Malian women traders and the need for mobility

Gunvor Jónsson

School of Oriental and African Studies, London, UK
This paper focuses on mobile female traders from Mali, who regularly travel to Dakar in Senegal to sell or buy goods. In the recent past, these women deployed the Dakar-Niger Railway, trading goods en route and at the terminus train station in Dakar, where a Malian market existed until 2009. With the decline of the railway, the mobile women traders gradually shifted to alternative means of transport by road. This paper will first outline the trade cycles of these mobile women and discuss how the use of communications technology and different means of transport is changing women’s experiences of moving. I will then discuss the volatile and precarious nature of the economies the women operate within, and the traders’ ambiguous relations with each other. The paper will argue that the unstable socio-economic environment creates a need for physical mobility and displacement of traders and that mobility is not rendered obsolete by the existence of mobile phones and other communications technology. The absence of formal contracts and legal frameworks to protect the rights, goods, and earnings of traders creates a need for surveillance and face-to-face contact with other traders and middlemen, to reinforce trust, loyalty and proper conduct.

Youth, mobility and mobile phones: exploring linkages between young people’s mobile phone usage  and  travel behaviour in sub-Saharan Africa

Gina Porter, Kate Hampshire, Albert Abane, James Milner, Alister Munthali, Elsbeth Robson, Andisiwe Bango, Ariane DeLannoy, Mac Mashiri, Augustine Tanle

The communications landscape is changing dramatically in both urban and rural areas of Africa, as mobile phone usage and ownership expand exponentially.  This may have significant implications for the scale and nature of travel.  In the context of prevailing high travel costs, dauntingly high rates of road accident and injury and other travel difficulties and dangers, there would seem to be considerable potential for virtual mobility to substitute for physical mobility in many contexts, and perhaps especially among young people who typically have limited resources and a strong propensity to embrace available new technologies like the mobile phone.  This raises interesting questions around the intersections between physical and virtual mobility, including the extent to which intermittent co-presence  [Urry 2012] remains a necessary pre-condition for the maintenance of strong social relations in African youth contexts.  Other considerations, however, include the potential of phone usage to facilitate travel, for instance by assisting the organisation and scheduling of group travel, by ensuring safety and security during travel through collective action and [virtually] escorted journeys, and by supporting journeys into unknown territory.      The paper draws on ethnographic and survey research across 24 sites in Ghana, Malawi and South Africa, principally to explore young people’s perceptions regarding the impact of phone use on their own travel behaviour, but also to consider that of family and other close contacts, insofar as this impinges on their own lives. Comparisons are drawn by age, gender, and locational context (rural versus urban sites, and country differences).

The Impact of Text Message (SMS) Reminders on Helmet Use among Motorcycle Drivers in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Benjamin Campbell Respicious Boniface, Tom Bishop, Peter Amos

The number of new motorcycle registrations per year in Tanzania increased from 45,000 in 2008 to 109,000 in 2012. This coincided with the number of officially reported motorcycle deaths increasing from 309 in 2008 to 930 in 2012 (Tanzanian Traffic Police, 2013).
Globally, head injuries are the main cause of death among motorcyclists. Helmets protect very effectively against such injuries (WHO, 2004).

Motorcycle taxis are an increasingly popular mode of transport in Tanzania. In the main city – Dar es Salaam – unpublished surveys have shown helmet wearing rates among motorcycle drivers to be around 85%, although observation and anecdotes suggest that rates on minor roads are far lower than this.

This paper will present the findings of a randomised controlled trial to measure the impact of SMS reminders on helmet wearing among motorcycle taxi drivers in Dar es Salaam.
The trial involves sending SMS messages to around 400 motorcycle taxi drivers, divided into three groups. The first group will receive ‘peer pressure’ messages to encourage them to wear a helmet. The second group will receive ‘fear of injury’ messages to encourage them to wear a helmet. The third group will act as a control, receiving general messages about road safety, not related to helmet wearing.

A survey of helmet wearing rates among the three groups will be conducted before, during and after the end of the 6-week messaging campaign. We will compare this rate between the three groups, to assess the impact of the SMS reminders on helmet wearing.



  1. Africa is so expansive geographically that at this current time it may be difficult to have a network that can reach the most isolated places.
    It could be a possibility that mobile companies may use land to construct mobile masts.
    In areas that are sparsely populated and therefore mainly could be counter productive to install and implementing such measures.

    source :

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