The Social Lives of Mobile Telephones in Kenya

More Kenyans have access to a mobile phone than to electricity or even to clean water.

Mpesa shop, Kenya
Mpesa shop (2012)

Considering that most of rural Kenya was not even covered by cellphone networks a decade ago, the spread of cellphones has had a rapid impact on the countryside, and how rural households relate to their migrant family members.  Kenya pioneered phone-based money transfer technologies (mPesa) but the widespread use of cellphones is also changing gender dynamics and the power relationships between young and old.

This research project (funding proposal submitted to SSHRC Oct. 2013) asks “How do rural-urban interdependencies in Kenya affect livelihoods and food security?” Four interlinked objectives are:

  1. To illustrate the extent and dynamics of multilocational livelihoods in contrasting socio-ecological contexts of Kenya, with focus on the extent and temporal patterns of mobility, migration, long-distance communication, resource transfers, and knowledge exchange.
  2. To evaluate the socio-economic impacts of multilocational livelihoods, particularly the vulnerabilities and opportunities created by a) flows of resources (investments and support) and b) changes in the internal gendered and intergenerational dynamics of decision-making, access to land, and control of labour.
  3. To evaluate the agro-ecological impacts of multilocational livelihoods, especially on food security through changing agricultural productivity and practice, and agroecological knowledge.
  4. To evaluate the information and resource needs of differentiated, multilocational households, to identify poverty traps or other barriers to effective participation in rural or urban spheres.
Kenyan woman holds her phone up in a maize field
(photo by M-kilimo)

Publications so far:

  • 2014 Book Chapter (‘We will not farm like our fathers’) outlined some of the preliminary ideas for this research.
  • 2015 Article (‘Never at ease’) uses new, field data to explore the challenges multilocational households face in Western Kenya.
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