Enhancing Urban Livelihoods through Mobile Phones


The SL framework stems from the mismatch between the conceptualizations of poverty between the poor and development professionals, practitioners and perhaps, earlier academic research. The framework is purported to propose a more appropriate way of conceptualizing poverty to be consistent with the perspectives and realities of poor people (Chambers, 1995). It reframes development as an effort to improve people’s livelihood options (Ashley and Carney, 1999). A livelihood is a means of living, comprising “the capabilities, assets (both material and social resources) and activities required for making a living” (Chambers and Conway, 1992:7). It is said to be sustainable “when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base” (DFID, 1999: 1).
The key elements of the framework are the vulnerability context, the livelihood assets, the transforming structures and processes, livelihood strategies, and the livelihood outcomes. Livelihood assets or ‘capital assets’ refer to people’s material and social strengths used to generate human needs (DFID, 2001). It consists of human, financial, natural, social and physical forms of capital. These are briefly explained as:
Human capital refers to the people within a community, their knowledge and skills, information, personal well-being, self-esteem, and ability to labor;
Financial Capital denotes the availability of financial resources in the form of savings, remittances, credit and pension to help people carry out their livelihood objectives;
Natural Capital refers to the natural resource stocks such as land, water, wildlife, biodiversity and environmental resources from which people derive a means of living;
Physical Capital refers to the basic infrastructure such as roads, ICT infrastructure and other producer goods, which support livelihood activities; and
Social Capital is the formal and informal networks and connections that exist among people with shared interest (DFID, 1999).
The framework is critiqued to be politically inadequate for not considering political capital as a core livelihood asset; however, political capital may be seen as embedded in either social or human capital and does not have to be considered separately (Toner, 2003). We conceptualize political capital as part of social capital and as ‘rights’ which people use to pursue livelihood options and establish the links for structures and processes between macro and micro level (Baumann, 2000).
In applying it as an analytical tool, the framework lends the understanding that the accessibility to various levels of these assets can influence the livelihood strengths of the poor (Ellis, 2000). However, the vulnerability of their context impinges on these assets. Hence, the poor develop strategies cope with and recover from stresses and shocks from the context and achieve livelihood outcomes which reinforce these assets. The development and implementation of these strategies is mediated other external processes and structures in the context which may enable or constraint outcomes achieved. Mobile phones, as ICTs, has the potential to contribute to the livelihoods of the poor by providing access to information and services to help reduce vulnerability, enhance assets, coordinate policies, and improve livelihood strategies and outcomes (Bachelor and Scott, 2001; Knight-John et al., 2005).
Through this theoretical lens, we examine the impact of m-business on the livelihoods of its operators.


Vinoria Attitsogbe is 19 years, not married and had dropped out of the Junior High School (JHS). Since leaving the classroom, Vinoria became engaged in selling of ‘pure water’ on the streets of Accra. About six months ago, she conceived the idea to shift from the sale of ‘pure water’ to a more lucrative activity that could meaningfully cushion her livelihoods and general living standards. The best option that came into mind then was the m-business. Immediately she personally raised $21.00 from the sale of ‘pure water’ (purified water in sachets) to buy a mobile phone handset and later got it connected to the MTN network, one of the mobile telephone connectivity providers. As at the time of our interview, she owned a small m-business. She operates the m-business every working day and weekends including Sunday. Unfortunately, the mobile phone she bought from personal financial resources at the initial stage was stolen and hence had to depend on relatives to obtain a replacement. Vinoria’s starting financial capital was $56.00. This included the cost of the mobile phone ($21.00), an umbrella ($10.50) and a small purposely-built table ($24.5). Despite the fact that she had operated the m-business for only about 1-2 months, she described her new business as ‘good’. In her view, the m-business is technologically modest, socially decent and profitable as compared to selling of ‘pure water’ on the city streets under the hot sun. The m-business involved making and receiving calls, unit transfer and the sale of recharge cards. The five recharge chards she normally sold were the Zain, Kasapa, Tigo, MTN and Vodafone. She earned a profit of about $6.00 a day.
According to Vinoria, the m-business was positively impacting on her livelihoods. Two indicators she enumerated to buttress the earlier statement were that (i) there had been an increased social capital and (ii) she was able to meet minor medical expenses. She had established new relationships with many customers some of whom became regular friends. Also, she relied on the income from the m-business to buy food everyday. Beyond the livelihoods, she also paid $3.5 to the Accra Metropolitan Assembly as a tax. From the discussion we have had with Vinoria, she did not deposit any money in the bank but planned to do so in the months to come. The income, social networks and job satisfaction derived so far from the m-business compelled her not to go back to selling of ‘pure water’.


Famous Gedza is an unmarried young man of about 26 years old who has been involved in the m-business for over 1 year. He established the m-business with financial resources gathered from his relatives. The start-up capital was $840. He bought the mobile phone at a cost of $70.00 and have been using it since then without incurring maintenance cost. In practice, Famous would generally not repair faulty phone. Most often than not, a faulted phone is sold and the money generated is used to acquire a new phone rather than repairing it. Depending on the number of transfer units bought from mobile service providers/wholesale distributors, Famous earned an income of roughly $9.00 in a day. He used a fraction of the income to pay for utility bills, buy food for consumption and drugs to treat minor illnesses. For example, in September 2009, he paid almost $9.80 as the cost of water and electricity bills. In the case of accommodation, the parents usually paid the cost over a year and not monthly. Thus income from m-business was not used to pay for accommodation. But it was realised then that the m-business could really alleviate harsh economic situations and secure the safety of vulnerable people. In spite of high demand on him to meet many financial obligations, he saved at least $42.00 in a month with a Susu collection company called Look Beyond Enterprise. Apart from the above benefits, we tried to find out from Famous how the m-business had specifically improved his living situation.
With this, we noticed that prior to starting the m-business, Famous was an employee of a Foam Manufacturing factory based in Nsawam. After working in the factory for a couple of months, he abandoned the job due to extremely low monthly salary, autocratic managerial leadership and continuing pressure on him to perform official duties for which he had unmatched technical skills and capabilities. Emotional feelings were intelligently exploited and violated. According to him, since he started the m-business, he has flexible time to do so many other activities and, more importantly, the monthly income from the m-business is higher than the salary being paid by the factory. This only confirms the cross-scaled ways mobile phone is directly and indirectly helping to build livelihood structures.

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