Essays on the Economic Impacts of Mobile Phones in Sub-Saharan Africa

Joshua Blumenstock. Essays on the Economic Impacts of Mobile Phones in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ph.D. dissertation. Advisor: AnnaLee Saxenian. University of California, Berkeley. 2012.


This dissertation presents an empirical investigation of the role of mobile phones in Rwandan society and economy. The material draws on two summers of fieldwork in sub-Saharan Africa, several thousand interviews with mobile phone owners, and roughly ten terabytes of data on mobile phone use that was obtained from Rwanda's largest telecommunications operator.

I begin by analyzing the distribution of mobile technology within the Rwandan population, drawing attention to disparities in access to and use of mobile phones between rich and poor, and between men and women. I then focus on the economic implications of the spread of various mobile-based services, and provide evidence that Mobile Money is being used for risk sharing, to help people cope with shocks and income volatility. I conclude with more general methodological insights, which illustrate how new forms of digital data can be used to observe and understand the behavior of populations in developing countries, at a level of detail typically unobserved by social scientists.

The chapters in this dissertation develop theory and methods for understanding how mobile technologies influence economic and social behavior, and how new sources of data can be used to provide insight into patterns of human interaction. Taken together, the empirical results indicate that phones have had a positive impact on the lives of some people but, absent intervention, the benefits may not reach those with the greatest need. The ultimate goal of these studies is to better understand how information and communications technologies are changing, and can be used to improve, the lives of people worldwide.


Last updated:

September 20, 2016