More cell phones than toilets


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An article in yesterday’s New York Times observes that, with the number of mobile subscriptions exceeding five billion, more people today have access to a cell phone than to a clean toilet.  Leaving aside the relative value of these two appliances, the surge in cell phones in Africa—some 94 percent of urban Africans are near a GSM signal—is transforming the continent.  Farmers in Niger use cell phones to find out which market is giving the best price; people in Kenya pay their bills and send money home using M-Pesa.

The major driver of this growth has been deregulation of the cellular telephone sector, which led to massive private investment in the sector.  It is no coincidence that Ethiopia, one of the few countries hasn’t deregulated its telecommunications sector, has one of the lowest rates of mobile phone use in Africa.
Although cell phones are now widely available because government got out of the way, they may have the effect of helping government do its job better.  The Times’ article notes that in India, the cell phone is used in citizen election monitoring, and in equipping voters, via text message, with information on candidates’ incomes and criminal backgrounds. Some of my colleagues are working on using cell phones to verify if the teacher is present in the classroom, or the doctor is in the clinic.  Perhaps one day cell phones will bring to half the African population something else they lack—clean toilets.


Shanta Devarajan

Teaching Professor of the Practice Chair, International Development Concentration, Georgetown University

Chacko Philip
April 15, 2010

As you said, your colleagues are working on using cell phones to verify if the teacher is present in the classroom, or the doctor is in the clinic. Why not use this for sending text messages for AIDS campaigns and other human development issues. One of the major problems faced by NGOS and international organizations in Africa is the problem of accessibility. If this can be solved using increased penetration of mobile phones, why not the World Bank work closely with the national governments in improving the mobile phone infrastructure in the rural areas as well. This could further strengthen the citizen empowerment schemes which the World Bank and other international organizations have been trying to do in Africa over the years.

April 15, 2010

It sounds a jock but it is not. I have never thought Africa's problems can be solved through big number of mobile subscribers. Mobile has never been a solution for African problems and it will never be in fact it has been a problem to Africans. It has become addiction and means of begging and immorality. it has tempered with African Families, many families divorce because of Mobile. they are also cause of poverty.

African problems and its poverty is deep rooted and will only be solved when Africans realize their problems. Guy let us stop joking.

We should keep this topic for next time.


April 15, 2010

Thanks for providing the data and for the analysis. However, this data is Africa specific and not region specific. Africa is a huge continent with diverse resources, capacities and capabilities. Personally, I find this generalization of Africa ambiguous.

It’s really positive that there are more cell phones because information is power and people in whatever country in Africa need information to find their own long lasting solutions. There has been several International NGO’s, local NGO’s among others working within African countries on specific developmental issues for quite a substantial amount of time, but the situation seems to remain static.
We get to the see the same developmental problems being brought up now and then and in most instances the situation deteriorates or there is a slight margin of growth.

I reckon majority of the people would be interested to hear what have been the challenges in having clean accessible toilets to date with all the intervention of NGO’s and the government vs people embracing technology swiftly.

April 16, 2010

I recently read in my local Newspaper that financial aid to orphans and vulnerable groups was being disbursed through M-PESA.This is good because not only the OVCs benefit but also the local M-pesa agents. This creates job opportunities for many in the rural setting.

April 16, 2010

Given the high number of subscribers of the cellphone, alot of achievement can be made by government agencies. In the rural areas for example, where also a number of farmers have the item, weather forecasts can be delivered with the options in a menu of how to download local, real time information for likelihood of flooding, onset of seasonal rains, and so forth. This would help particularly the subsistence farmer plan his activities better and achieve food sufficiency through farming.

April 16, 2010

A very interesting observation.

Most of the communal facilities continue to lack ownership in our society-Africa. The examples given above in Niger and Kenya have an individual economic gain and therefore would and will continue to thrive.The use of cell phones to influence the government would require free toll service numbers to be introduced at all levels of the government structures. This would then be achieved only when this structures are well equiped,functional and decentralised to allow responce with less bureacracies mostly seen in centralised systems.

The introduction of communal pay toilets in Nairobi,Kenya have assisted in keeping the toilets clean-again issue of individual gain-as someone is responsible to manage them.

Empowering communities to own facilities in their vicinity would be the way to go.

Martin Okumu
April 16, 2010

Cellphone can be used to keep the government on it'd toes. The only problem is that the communication system in the government is bureaucratic nature of the government communications. If the oppenned up the communication space, then the mobile phone would very effective

April 16, 2010

The ease of access to mobile phone is largely driven by the need to keep in touch due to the geographical expansiveness of the region. With $20 one can acquire a low cost set.
However, cultural forces remain stumbling block to putting up toilets. For some communities- mine included- toilets are viewed as a luxury and given our nomadism practice its unlikely they would be constructed. Afterall we would be on the move even before we use them.
In addition, the sheer large land size allows outside defacation, seen as a simple way of waste disposal.

April 17, 2010

In addition to my other comment , we should clarify that the analogy was incorrect because it did not consider ration. What is the ratio of the number of people sharing a toilet in comparison to the number of people sharing a cell phone? Doesn't it make sense that even in the developed countries more that one person would share a toilet?

We shouldn't always put Africa down with sensational analogies.

April 15, 2010

This is a very poor analogy.

However the cost of building and maintaining an effective toilet and sewage system is substantially much higher than maintaining a cell phone.

victoria gooch
October 20, 2014

i can understand this. If one needs to defecate to avoid disease one can bury the fecal material after dousing it with Clorox and that would eliminate the spread of disease. As many people in Africa are rural I think the cell phone is a life line sometimes.

April 15, 2010

Thanks for your comment. On the data for Africa, over 60 percent of the African population has access to a cell phone, but less than 50 percent have access to working toilets.

On the policy conclusions, you are right that toilets are rival and excludable, but open defecation generates externalities for the rest of the population, so there is a case for public subsidy. However, the problem has been that the government often interprets the subsidy as giving households free toilets. Too often, these households end up using the toilets for grain storage and other purposes for which they were not intended! The successful cases I know of are when the government gave the community a set of vouchers for toilets, and asked the community to hand it out to households. Then, the community (which would have been the beneficiary of reduced open defecation) had an incentive to make sure the toilets were used for their intended purpose.

April 19, 2010

I think that it is better to think about the cost of living and the level of income of each household or person in order to know if people are able to use cell phone at anytime and anyhow even if this is, at first sight, so necessary in todays time. Question must be asked. How is the level of technology in each erea? The answer will help us to handle the situation and to compare what is so urgent for african people; cell phone accessibility or foods efficiency and proficiency or health care?
Development is a long process. So the policy of Wold Bank should focused on how to reach and get satisfactions of good standard of living process everywhere around the world.More effort is needed for this matter!

April 13, 2010

Very interesting blog, as always. I wonder what the same data is for Africa specifically - what percentage of Africans have a cell phone, and what percentage have access to a clean toilet. Even more stark? Possibly.

I also wonder what the logical policy conclusion is. Perhaps it is that private providers could do much more in Africa, if only the government would let them - and if the WB would support this. Toilets are (a) divisible and (b) excludable, so are not a public good. There are externalities of course (defecating in a ditch causes disease for the whole village), which could argue for some kind of public subsidy.

Africa is failing to meet the IDTs, and its performance vs. Asia (for example) is terrible. Time for some radical solutions to issues such as toilet provision?

April 19, 2010

As stated, cellphone do play an important role in the lives of many people. For example, money transfer services have help bring basic financial services to many in Kenya. As to whether cellphone can improve efficiency in Africa government's service delivery to their populace, I would say yes. In Kenya, the government has an ambitious computerisation programme, based on this the IT platforms, if SMS solutions were incorporated they would help the general citizenry track the delivery of services. For example, through one should SMS platform, an applicant for a passport can track the progress of his application. Thus, cellphones do have a role to play. In addition to this, most cell phones today are data enabled and thus their users can access internet hence in the future the cellphone users will track service delivery from their phones.

April 21, 2010

Its rather interesting to read this. If I may ask, what can add value to an Economy and improve society welfare? Is it access to Mobile phone or a clean toilet?
Access to better means of communication n convenience to many Micro-enterprises, SMEs not to mention corporates even, is the new magic mobile phones have for in Kenya. I've watched the rapid revolution eyes wide open; at a touch of a button; you are accesing your bank account, sending money at minimal cost, internet whenever wherever, communication, pay bill, buy can't better that this! Jobs n more jobs all over!
What would a developing ecomony need? Employment? Yes it is. Better employment better sanitation.

buenos aires
April 30, 2010

In buenos aires, it´s quite imposible to find a public toilet in well condition, but cellphones are wide spread, some studies says that there are more than one cellphone per inhabitant and the poberty index is quite high (more than 20%)

May 07, 2010

People can use cellphones to help improve push the service providers give services to the people eg people can used the cellphones to know which types of drugs are missing in the local hospital ...

steve nicks
June 07, 2010

This is really a bad news to know, there's a lot of cellphone users but having a clean toilet is not really a big issue, its so sad that there are giving more importance in mobile phone instead of having a clean toilet.

June 09, 2010

ethiopia is the country of borats .... one of the state medias success stories is mobile phone subscription rate

September 21, 2010

"This is a very poor analogy.

However the cost of building and maintaining an effective toilet and sewage system is substantially much higher than maintaining a cell phone."

Fortunately this is not the case, unfortunately it is the common belief. Toilets do not need to be connected to a sewer to be effective. An ecologically sound and socially just toilet costs around USD$30 to build. This consists of the sanitization pit, and the pan. The superstructure can be a bit more, but can be built by the homeowner.

Further according to DfiD "Investment in drinking-water and sanitation would result in 272 million more school attendance days a year. The value of deaths averted, based on discounted future earnings, would amount to US$ 3.6 billion a year". The ADB shows that for every $1 invested in sanitation you get between $3-$34 back (I know that is a huge range, but it is allowing for all possible levels of implementation).

The toilet also produces night soil which is already used in many countries as fertilizer, and can be sold. When you add all of this up it is clear that toilets can provide as many economic opportunities as a cell phone. Beyond this cell phones require airtime to be of use, which can be quite costly when added up over a year. Toilets require minimum maintenance, most of which is free. Besides, its pretty hard to make a phone call when you are dying from cholera.

victoria gooch
October 20, 2014

Nice post and very informative I thank you for that.

October 31, 2010

it is upseting to think that anyone would find a cell phone more important than a clean, healthy toilet. cell phones may help the conomy, like if you look at this site:…
then you will se my point.

January 31, 2011

Well it is clear that cell phones can be a lot of help to people, but it is still hard for me to believe that so many people can have them. It seems like it was only yesterday when cell phones were about the size of a football, and only a handful of people even had them. Since then though, it definitely seems like a little, personal call center is the way to go. It certainly seems that they are helping people. I just hope that humanity can hold on to the actuality of essential needs and not get too carried away by technology. Toilets may not be actual essential needs either, but they are definitely more important than cell phones. These cell phones should just be a privilege of life, not a necessity.