In the wake of World Water Day, there has been a meme floating around social media stating that “More people have access to mobile phones than toilets.” The statistic behind this (which is not usually cited on social media) comes from a UN report on access to toilet sanitation which states 6 billion people have access to mobiles, while only 4.5 billion have access to toilets. It is a terrible situation and one that continually needs to be addressed. And encouragingly, there are innovative efforts at work to help resolve this: in India, the No Toilet, No Bride campaign is ensuring women have access to sanitation by requiring men to guarantee a toilet before a marriage can take place.
What I really wanted to address is the rather glib and dismissive way mobile phones are treated by this message. There is an implicit dismissal of mobiles, with the implication being that society has focused on the unimportant (mobiles) while neglecting the needed (toilets.) This ignores entirely the benefits mobiles have provided, particularly to residents of less developed countries where sanitation is still an issue.
The reason why mobiles have spread farther than toilets is easy to see. It is cheaper and quicker to set up a mobile phone network and system than it is to dig sewers and lay pipe for indoor plumbing. And the device cost to the user is lower. Even in the developed world you can get a mobile phone for less than the cost of a new toilet.
But what about the benefits? What have mobiles done for under-served consumers?
- Made communication easier. In countries where it is difficult to travel due to poor infrastructure, lack of vehicles, or civil unrest, mobiles have allowed friends and families to easily and safely stay in touch.
- Banked the unbanked. Mobiles have allowed millions of people without bank accounts to participate in formal financial systems and begin to save money. Mobile banking and m-money services allow users to pay bills, transfer money to other users, send remittances, and even make in-store purchases. The most successful, Kenya’s M-pesa mobile banking system launched by Safaricom in 2007, now has 15 million users, who , since M-pesa opened, have used the system to transfer money equal to 20 % of Kenya’s GDP.
- Fostered small business. In cities and villages around the world, mobiles have led entrepreneurial consumers to go into business for themselves. Often this has meant offering phones for rent or re-selling air time. But as feature phones and smartphones spread, so too do opportunities, for example, one man began selling his services as a tutor, teaching people how to access the Internet and use apps on phones.
- Enabled political activism. The events of the Arab Spring have most recently demonstrated the role mobile phones with Internet and social media access can play in politics. In Kenya, efforts to gather information on election-related violence led to the creation of the Ushahidi crowdsourced, mobile-driven reporting platform.
All of this is not to say that lack of toilets is not an issue, but rather to highlight the fact that helping people lead safer, better lives is not a zero-sum game. Yes, it is terrible that 2.5 billion people don’t have access to toilet sanitation, but that is not because 6 billion people have mobile phones.