Misfortune and setbacks are a recurring theme both in my fieldwork among market women in Accra, Ghana and in my previous work on livelihoods in rural Uganda. The specific misfortunes frequently mentioned included theft, accidents, or illnesses. The consequences of such an episode could be life altering. After years of careful accumulation, a theft, flood, or an extended stay in the hospital could cause a trader to lose all her working capital making her no better off financially than when she embarked upon her career. This was the experience of the plantain wholeseller who lost both saved cash and her mobile phone in a home burglary that left her dependent on her daughter.
A fire outbreak in October 2012 destroyed the Mallam market in Ghana. Local media outlet, My Joy Online, profiles a young woman whose business was ruined in the fire. She had started working in the market as a kayayee – a young woman (generally a Muslim migrant from the north of Ghana) who functions as a porter, paid small amounts to carry heavy head loads for wholesalers, retailers, and customers. Kayaye are generally not especially well treated or compensated. After a years worth of effort this kayayee had saved enough to purchase a sewing machine. Now with a single business asset she was able to move into a less physically punishing and lowly form of service work. This sewing machine was lost in the fire and as the article notes, “with the fate that has befallen her, Alima can only go back to the chaotic central business district of Accra as a Kayayee to start all over again.”
Such a possibility of total and sudden ruination is never far from the minds of market women. On a visit to a small market on the outskirts of Accra in June 2011, I spoke with a cloth trader who watched with alarm as two Chinese men strolled through the market holding lit cigarettes.’This market is a wood structure’ she pointed out to me. ‘If a fire erupts, we lose everything.’ These foreign men, part of the influx of Chinese traders to the West Africa region, unfamiliar with the local conventions and without awareness of the risks were endangering the livelihoods of every woman working in the close quarters of this market.
Conversations about the role of the mobile phone in risk mitigation seem to take place wholly apart from the intensive interest in the way the phone might increase productivity and boost profits in market activities. Yet these are two sides of the same coin. Profits and long-term accumulations are only as valuable as one’s ability to retain them. The mobile phone plays some role in this already. The ability to store money and transfer it securely through m-pesa and other digital money transfer systems and thus to protection funds from theft is one motivation for the use of such systems. On the threat of disasters that affect the livelihoods in broad regions, a study analyzing mobile phone call detail records as data investigated the use of the phone to make remittances after economic shocks in Rwanda. This study showed dramatically increased money transfer flows to the region affected by an earthquake. Such practices make apparent forms of more informal social insurance realized through such interpersonal networks of support.
While there is certainly a need for insurance products as the above examples illustrate, there are numerous logistical and regulatory barriers to realizing the delivery of such services via mobile phone. On the user side, fitting in new practices of greater formality and relying upon unfamiliar tools and processes (via the mobile phone). Ishita Ghosh, for example, found user uptake of a mobile-based savings product in Uganda to be limited. A study in India (Morawczysnki et al 2010) found similarly low utilization. There is great appeal to the idea of extending m-banking to encompass a wider range of financial services (including savings, loans, and insurance), but practically speaking it is money transfer services alone that have really taken off with users so far.
- Ghosh, I. (2012). The Mobile Phone as a Link to Formal Financial Services: Findings from Uganda. Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development.
- Morawczynski, O., Hutchful, D., Rangaswamy, N., & Cutrell, E. (n.d.). The Bank Account is not Enough: Examining Strategies for Financial Inclusion in India. Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development.