Food, Carvings and Shelter: The Adoption and Appropriation of Information and Communication Technologies in Tanzanian Micro and Small Enterprises
Molony, Thomas S J
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African countries have recently experienced an extraordinary and largely unanticipated boom in the uptake of mobile phones, and increasing rates of access to the internet. This thesis investigates how and why these information and communication technologies (ICT) are being adopted for use in Tanzanian micro and small enterprises (MSEs), and explores the changes they are bringing about to the existing business culture of marginalised economies. The study covers three sub-sectors of the Tanzanian economy: perishable foodstuffs trading, the informal construction industry and the export of African blackwood carvings. The analysis is based on fieldwork undertaken over a total of 15 months in 2002 and 2003, during which time business networks were revealed by physically following entrepreneurs and their contacts operating in different locations throughout the country. Entrepreneurs were asked to draw their own comparisons between the traditional pre-ICT situation and the improved ICT access of today. The discussion is informed by the findings of semi-structured interviews with these individuals, excerpts of which are presented in the text to give voice to the entrepreneurs. Various ingenious and at times unconventional methods of access to, and appropriation of, ICT is uncovered. Together these suggest that official indicators underestimate the thirst for digital consumption, especially for mobile phones, and help explain the flourishing informal economy of handset acquisition. Internet penetration and uptake for use in business, on the other hand, is revealed to be far slower. Nevertheless, the research does reveal that a sizeable amount of poorer entrepreneurs are using a triumvirate of hired or shared ICT – mobile phones, the Internet and the ‘old’ ICT of fax – to create what can appear to be a more formal enterprise than it may actually be. The ‘mobile office’ effectively allows poorer entrepreneurs to operate without premises, thereby saving costs on rent and allowing the enterprise to remain informal. This heralds a considerable change in the working practices of a significant branch of informal sector operators who have gone unnoticed, and calls for a reconstruction and redefinition of this crucial source of entrepreneurship in developing economies. Despite the huge uptake of mobile phones in particular, the work also cautions that some traditional pre-ICT aspects of the African business culture look set to remain for some time. It becomes clear that where entrepreneurs do decide to use ICT, reputation and recommendation are still very significant. This information is usually passed on when an entrepreneur meets in person with contacts from his very fluid informal networks of knowledge. Trust, and the need for direct, personal interaction through face-to-face contact – one of the most pervasive features of African MSE economies – emerge as a common theme across the case study industries and are likely to remain a crucial aspect of the way most MSE business is conducted. Mobile phones are seen to play a crucial role in improving the exchange of supply-anddemand information domestically, while a combination of applications (particularly e-mail) appear to act as tools with which to refresh relationships with sources of market information outside the country. It is suggested that ICT may be able to help entrepreneurs in moving from the personal to the impersonal exchange – a challenge that many other African businesses will also have to come to terms with as the Internet becomes an ever more important global trading tool.