BYU Helps: Cell Phones in Tanzania

It can be difficult to even imagine modern life without a cell phone, and it’s even harder to believe that just fifteen years ago, having the world at your fingertips wasn’t a common experience. Of course, in some parts of the globe, it still isn’t. To citizens of many underdeveloped countries, the prospect of owning a cell phone is the last thing on their minds. However, even the harshest of conditions can be vastly improved by access to this modern technology–and that’s why a BYU professor and his students are trying to help. Professor Daniel Nelson of BYU’s Department of Political Science recently accompanied seven students to the African nation of Tanzania, where they conducted mentored research on the effects of cell phone usage in poor Tanzanian communities. Specifically, the study focused on how access to cell phones might make a meaningful difference in the Tanzanian women’s lives.

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Similar to the type of study in which certain subjects are given a medicine and compared with a control group that does not receive the medicine, this study analyzed the effects of cell phone usage on these women’s lives the same way. In Professor Nelson’s study, the researchers randomly assigned a bequest of free cell phones, smart phones, and other technological devices to Tanzanian women in order to gauge their effects on their welfare and the welfare of the communities generally. Some positive benefits were expected, but even Professor Nelson was encouraged by the level of difference the cell phones made to the women. “We thought the cell phones might be transformative,” he said, “but we were surprised at the magnitude of the effects. Compared to the wait-list control group, women with phones had much better pricing information for their small businesses, were able to recruit more customers, and made significantly greater use of mobile money.”

nielson-daniel“Critically, women in the phone group reported roughly double the incomes of women in the wait-list control,” Professor Nelson continued. He hopes to replicate those dramatic effects in a larger, third phase of the study, to drive home the importance of the findings and their big implications for international business, policymaking, and scholarship. Though the main project was funded by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the money for mentored student research came from donors to Brigham Young University.

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