Re/claiming the Utility and Novelty of Mobile Phones and Social Media Lessons from Pastoralists in East and West Africa

While we may be accustomed to or overwhelmed by the rapid pace of digital development, recognize that cell phones are often the very first connection pastoral communities have with a modern information and communication tool. The way pastoralists have largely approached the rather belated entry of mobile technology and social media with excitement, grace and inventiveness is another example of their remarkable flexibility and adaptability. 

The skepticism and downright hostility towards technology, and particularly mobile phones, along with its varied disruptions to contemporary life continues to grow. This concern and disdain are not new or peculiar to this generation. There were similar reactions to the inventions of electricity, the fax machine, radio, and television. As they are deployed in our era, internet-enabled phones and their snarky elder sibling— personal computers— alarm leaders, disconcert activists, victimize workers, bully educators, depress teenagers, retrench artists, terrorize governments, decimate jobs, destroy the environment, and upset economies. The concern and pessimism is justified. We have the power to alter the trajectory of these innovations. To activate our agency in shaping the future of these tools, we might benefit from reconnecting with the sense of possibility that innovative ideas inspire when they first begin to spread. 

The story begins with the introduction of an innovation, often with an expansive promise. The mobile phone as well as what we now call Web 2.0 promised to democratize access to information and create a connected utopia. Inventors, like my fellow poets and researchers, experience it at a molecular level when they finally strike gold. The cell phone, the internet, and a social media application could change the world. Innovators and early adopters are thrilled by the sheer possibility and become evangelists for their pet products. The zealotry of this group of early-adopting fans eventually piques the interest of a slightly bigger group of users. The initial success of these products and services ensured their global adoption and popularity. People who remained reluctant were bullied into compliance and opting out was not an option, or softly coerced if the benefits are so radical or wide-ranging, like with M-Pesa in Kenya and with Google products globally. Luddites and other hard-core skeptics eventually experienced reputational, cultural, financial and interpersonal consequences for attempting to remain outside the sphere of these services. 

Prior to my recent engagement with pastoralists, I would have described myself as firmly in this group of hold-outs: more perturbed by the risks than enthralled by the benefits of digital technology, especially social media. However, learning from pastoralists is challenging my notions to exist outside of digital media technologies. I now feel what I believe many experienced at the first introduction of mobile phones, and social media—giddy, and slightly constipated with the future. 

I have found that beyond their resilience and impressive management of rangelands—even amidst the ongoing climate crisis—pastoralists’ inventive risk management translates in their relationship with mobile technology and social media. The pastoralists I have engaged with through a research consortium called Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises (SPARC), organize their communities efficiently using technologies and have a strikingly healthy relationship with technologies that many of us on social media have been unable to achieve. You might consider them the original techies.    

In my recommendations to redesign more inclusive technology, I share five lessons from my study on the cultures of pastoralists. 



Dear pastoralists, itinerants, travellers and wanderers: 

Thank you for showing us it is possible to commune with this planet, with each other, and even with those of us who chose to settle. Yours is a sophisticated blueprint of a wild before—the best ‘greenprint’—a native in-between, and the wonder of an otherwise hereafter. I worry we the settled have little to offer you, but I appreciate that you continue your studentship of our visions of sedentary modernity and urbanity. May we apprentice ourselves to your stewardship of this gift of a world. 

Shukran tele, 

Alexis Grace. 


To my fellow born-frees about town, and any interning first-‘worlders’: 

Join me under the palm tree, by the Indian Ocean; under jamna, by Lake Victoria; in the desert, by our Lake Turkana or your jade sea; under the acacia, by Lake Nakuru or Lake Baringo or Lake Naivasha or Lake Elementaita or down River Tana if you would like. I call upon those I have learned from in Kaduna, and from the wonderful aggregators of herder wisdom across Nigeria: Fulbe Development & Cultural Organization (FUDECO). Let me pop your (internet) bubble. I will be gentle, but I plan to break things. This house we share, geographically and certainly digitally, has more rooms than you imagined possible. Our best housemates are our friends in the drylands. They have much to teach us. Pastoralists are clear-eyed about the risks facing this earth as well as the opportunities available to care for the planet and its peoples, animals and minerals. We can start by utilizing mobile technology to re/humanize and re/home ourselves in a world of our making. Here is an invitation to follow pastoralists’ generous guide of what an Otherwise might look like. 


Mx. Left-behind. 



Our research currently focuses on the drylands of East and West Africa—and the Middle East in the rest of the consortium—however we look forward to learning from researchers studying with the various pastoralist communities across the world. 

We learned that pastoralists use phones, but slightly differently from non-itinerant users. Mobile phones have become integral to the lives of many pastoral communities, with diffusion rates nearly doubling in a six-year period in the arid and semiarid lands of northern Kenya, for example. The rate of diffusion is similar in West as well as East Africa, with a similar uptick among Fulani pastoralists in northern Benin. 

In addition to the pressures we urban or settled societies face, we struggle to tap into the opportunities and address the negative effects of mobile phones. For us, constant reachability makes it hard to set up boundaries with each other, especially where our employers are concerned. There is a deeper sense of entitlement to rapid response and infinite amounts of time from those we message because after all aren’t we always on our phones? A blizzard of social media apps also demands our attention, with high-tech algorithms designed to enrage, enrapture and compel spending on the latest this-or-that favoured by such-and-such influencers. 

However, in the case of pastoralist mobile phone users, our research team found that cell phones, by design, integrate particularly well into their lives. They tend to own feature phones because brick phones such as the Nokia 3310 are affordable and have a long battery life of up to three days, hence, its convenience. However, staying connected is doubly important for people whose livelihood depends on travelling long distances, and who are likely to be separated from relatives and friends for months at a time. For those of us who have forgotten or were too young when mobile phones entered the market, we easily dismiss how much of a game-changer their portability is. My mother was wildly excited the first time someone paged, and she could separate the receiver from the landline and take it out to the veranda. Yet now, she takes how easily reachable her friends are from continents away. Pastoralists who can afford a phone find the capacity to be partially reachable critical to their way of life. In a recent publication, a Moroccan cattle breeder said: ‘It is important to be connected. I cannot understand life without a phone. He who does not have a mobile phone is not alive.’ 

While some young people might empathize with feeling at the brink of death if separated from their smartphone, the stakes are much higher for pastoralist communities. Pastoralists, with some exceptions such as those based in towns, tend to be socio-politically and economically disenfranchised. Like most rural areas, the drylands tend to be slow to receive infrastructural development due to intersecting issues including technical challenges, economic disincentives and lack of political will. In this context, the mass uptake is hamstrung by a myriad of factors. The most critical are infrastructure barriers including limited electricity—both on-grid and through renewable sources like solar and wind power—and low mobile and digital connectivity. Additional factors like risk avoidance by businesses, and constrained spending capacity combine with sociocultural barriers like low literacy levels, especially in non-indigenous languages to form a significant hurdle. Nonetheless, pastoralists’ reliance on oral communication, the mobile phone’s growing affordability, as well as greater infrastructure investment, is turning phones into a lifeline for those who practice transhumance. Fifty years after the mobile phone’s invention and a century and a half since Alexander Graham Bell was granted the United States patent for the telephone, pastoralists are getting into how downright amazing, and life-saving the device is. 

Fig. 1 

Mobile device type usage in sub-Saharan Africa 

Figure 1 shows nearly half (45%) of sub-Saharan African customers use basic or feature phones; 36% have access to 3G smartphones.


Figure 2 shows the gaps in mobile internet use between rural and urban regions within 8 countries, including Kenya and Nigeria, between 2018 and 2020. In some countries, like Mozambique that gap has increased, while in Nigeria it has decreased from 53 per cent to 39 per cent in the three year window.

Source: GSMA State of Mobile Internet Coverage 2021 


Source: GSMA, Connected Women – The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2021 



With our contextual understanding of the challenges to pastoralists to access mobile phones in the Sahel and Horn of Africa, let us consider their interaction with access to mobile and internet connectivity. 

Our research partner, Nendo Advisory, highlights that when connected, people in the drylands have similar behaviour online to their urban peers, and to those continents away. Nendo Advisory synthesized key figures on internet penetration, mobile network quality, device affordability, and gender-based access to mobile phones and the internet, and conducted a qualitative evaluation of audiences and conversations in public forums to give a snapshot of social media trends in pastoralist Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. Overall, greater affordability of smartphones and investments in connectivity is leading to more engaged participation of pastoralists online—largely in politics and local entertainment. Most innovations emerging utilizing the power of mobile phones in these contexts aim to support pastoralists’ resilience to climate change. Through this process, we have an initial understanding of who is using which social media platforms, and in what ways, and draw hypotheses explaining these patterns. Critically, we found that social media has significant potential for civic participation, e-commerce and community resilience in the drylands. 

Nendo’s 5S’s framework launched in their 2019 report, The State of Mobile Data, remains one of the African continent’s reference points in codifying internet behaviour. The 5S’ include 1. Search: with Google as Africa’s most visited website and Google’s Android as the #1 smartphone by market share, search is a mainstay of the online experience. 2. Sport: sports betting has taken on a meteoric rise in the last eight years. 3. Social: In most countries with legal operations by social media platforms, Facebook is only outranked by the instant messaging app WhatsApp. Instagram tends to rank high as a leading visual social network alongside recent (but fastest-growing) TikTok. Twitter maintains influence but remains mainly used by urbanites. 4. Sex: in many African countries (with almost no exceptions) adult websites rank in the top 10 most visited websites. 5. Stories: YouTube, local blogs/vlogs, mainstream media, and content creators are emerging as a crop of African storytellers and publishers create content and grow audiences. 

Nendo’s 5S’s framework explains what happens on the internet, while the Kantar/TNS framework explains how online users spend their time on the internet. Functions are limited by data, observers have time and data but do not post. Connectors post often but are limited by megabytes and time. Leaders and super leaders create the content. More information on Nendo’s hypotheses of percentages of creators is illustrated below. 


 Source: Kantar TNS 

As a professional ‘lurker’ or observer online, I have learned the most from how pastoralists are working with comparatively limited resources to adapt and drive innovation in the dis/use of both mobile phones and social media. As was hoped, mobile phones altered how we communicate interpersonally and how we exchange information across time and geography. Where we might be hyper-aware of bots, malware and spam calls, pastoralists are subverting our ideas of spam calls. Maasai agro-pastoralists, for example, form and use accidental social ties for some of the purposes listed above via ‘wrong number’ connections. One might mistakenly call a pastoralist and instead of immediately hanging up, the pastoralist would ask where you are, what the weather is, if it is safe, and whether you might have any shared relatives. Researchers exploring embedded technologies in pastoralism note that for the Maasai, information exchange via phone is not considered inferior to in-person communication. 

For pastoralists, phones have changed how they conduct business. Perhaps we might learn from them to read attacks on our livelihoods, real and perceived, as a source of comfort. In the business world, when others attempt to copy your model, however incompetently, ‘crowding in’ is the best form of flattery. As a poet myself, I had a gripe with ‘Instagram poets’ — while hypocritically finding a home in Tumblr-born poets like Yrsa Daley Ward and Warsan Shire— because of nostalgia and unfounded fears for the death of poetry.  

How could phones and the internet change the livelihood and way of life with a history as long as herding?  A form of ‘virtual herding’ has emerged. At the basic level, ‘elite pastoralists’ who employ labour use their phones through WhatsApp, to access information on their herds’ location and make payments for labour and inputs via mobile, among other uses. This is similar to farmers managing their land and plots remotely while tapping into other benefits of mobile technology. Further, researchers have found that a small proportion of pioneer pastoralists in Isiolo, Wajir and Marsabit in Kenya are exploring mobile Agriculture (mAgriculture). Our team in SPARC is documenting similar innovations and products designed for and with drylands inhabitants in a digital dashboard. We found that pastoralists are now utilising USSD, SMS, and voice-based tools to gain vital information. They are using phones to access information on water resources and forage, track weather conditions, forecast climate changes, and exchange updates on livestock volumes and prices. These tools also unlock wider access to veterinary services, medical assistance, extension services and financial services like mobile payments and access to credit. They also provide information to local government, planners and non-profit workers on population structures, migration partners and health metrics, make payments, and access credit as well as manage warning systems of information on hotspots for conflict and sightings of dangerous animals. 

Social media particularly has emerged as a corollary to citizen journalists and storytellers using community radio in pastoralist regions. Certain aspects of social media, like the capacity to use indigenous languages and vernacular, curate hyper-local interests that center pastoralist preferences and habits. If you are lucky to speak Maa, you are in for a happy break to your likely busy Tuesday. We found that there is a growing segment of diaspora and drylands-based content creators using WhatsApp, Facebook and TikTok to entertain their audiences— especially since little mainstream content is tailored for them— and to mobilize their communities in local activism and to influence federal politics. 

While we may be accustomed to or overwhelmed by the rapid pace of digital development, recognize that cell phones are often the very first connection pastoral communities have with a modern information and communication tool. The ways pastoralists have largely approached the rather belated entry of mobile technology and social media with excitement, grace and inventiveness is another example of their remarkable flexibility and adaptability. 


The more I understand pastoralism as an infrastructure, the more frustrated I am that so many hurdles prevented pastoralists from accessing mobile phones and the myriad applications built on that innovation. These forms of exclusion have material consequences. For example, in 2018 alone mobile technologies and services in sub-Saharan Africa generated $144.1 billion, roughly 9 per cent of the region’s GDP. However, these were not accessible to people in drylands. 

It is particularly egregious given nearly fifteen years ago, researchers forecasted that mobile phones would likely have a radical (positive) impact on economic development in rural parts of Africa. 

A key barrier to businesses and governments supporting drylands populations’ growth is the misconception that they contribute little to biodiversity and food systems, are unproductive and unworthy of political and economic investment. Some other misconceptions are that their inhabitants are largely responsible for environmental degradation. In a more accurate description, drylands are areas with high climate variability; low soil fertility, sparse and mobile populations, and geographies that are remote from and poorly served by development infrastructure. While drylands have weak institutions and weak human capital they are rich in traditional and local knowledge, and ethnic and cultural diversity. 

In the last 30 years, scholars, activists and other actors have offered comprehensive counter-arguments and counter-narratives to these misconceptions. For instance, dryland ecosystems constitute nearly half of the African continent. Nearly a decade ago, the International Livestock Research Institute indicated that 1.3 billion people across the African continent relied on the livestock value chain, which at the time contributed up to 40 per cent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of African countries. The pastoralist research network and non-profit organization, FUDECO, estimates that over 90 per cent of livestock in Nigeria is owned by roughly 20 million pastoralists. The Nigerian government has valued the country’s livestock sector, largely managed by herders, at over N33 trillion. Anchored in mobility, traditional pastoralism is likely one of the most adaptive and productive strategies for Africa’s rangelands. Fulani pastoralists, for example, are ‘an asset to environmental conservation’. For example, their open grazing practices have been found to help in the regeneration of organic matter in the soil, the lack of which is causing desertification in Nigeria in 70 per cent of Northern states. As such, there is much to learn from the flexibility and innovation of the resource-efficient communities that are sustaining pastoralism as a resilient livelihood. Pastoralism’s core capability of ‘boosting and amplifying process variance with real-time management strategies and options’ enables pastoralists to identify and test new ways to sustain livelihoods uniquely well in contexts of high uncertainty. When the source and paths of uncertainty are inconceivable, and the resulting changes are disproportionate, then coping reactively is a moot option. In other words, when even the illusion of prediction and control is impossible, coping mechanisms cannot be reactive. As such, settled societies would do well to apprentice with pastoralists on ‘coping ahead’— a proactive strategy of risk assessment, mitigation and flexible planning. 

Pertinently, I argue that there is a social technology underpinning pastoralist infrastructure. A lattice of social networks, governance mechanisms, knowledge systems and cooperative leadership makes rapid feedback loops to identify, assimilate and respond to variability and risk possible. This is a sophisticated social technology. Collective ownership and shared labour in pasture surveillance and livestock protection, for example, make long-term resource management through mobility viable. This is what doctoral researcher, Tahira Shariff, terms the ‘moral economy’ underpinning pastoral production. Shariff cites the Borana proverb borani wali waheela amalle walii wareega which means ‘I exist because you exist’ to illustrate the individual’s loyalty to the group. This greater system is mirrored or made tangible through several communities’ similarly sophisticated traditions of oral communication. The dagu, a network of information exchange based on reputation and trust, is one such system by Afar pastoralists in Ethiopia. The material and emotional benefits of belonging to a social network, whatever the channel, are immense. 


Pastoralists remind us that we can utilize our connectivity in a novel, fit-for-purpose ways as well as ignore the urgency cultivated by the ‘always-on’ communication cycles. When you simply have no control over whether you will be able to connect to the internet, or whether you are able to make a phone call at certain points of the day, what do you do? You do your job, which for most pastoralists is still independent of devices— besides mobile payments in certain instances. You provide care for your family, plan, and indulge in fulfilling hobbies and interests besides being connected online. In other words, you live. 

Importantly, innovators and inventors continue to design for and with pastoralists— accounting for their specific constraints and contexts. On SPARC’s Innovation Dashboard, we document the different products, business models and process innovations, including mobile-based interventions, that are already operating in the drylands, or have the potential to deliver impact in these geographies. The introduction of these tools may have been slow, but the pace of innovation is increasing. Over the next decade, I forecast that successful inventions for a healthier offline-online balance may very well emerge from the drylands as they find an equilibrium between serving their needs and maintaining their way of life within unequal infrastructure.


An invincible atom bomb has exploded in our information ecosystem and as it did in Hiroshima, we need to create new institutions like the United Nations and new codes stating our values like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to prevent humanity from doing its worst. Maria Ressa 

Mobile phone and social media adoption is not without risk. For example, mobile money was expected to enhance financial inclusion in Kenya and while this goal has been achieved with mixed success over the past two decades, the emergence of sports betting and predatory mobile loans have disenfranchised many and invited calls for new legislation. Hence, the global push for transparency, regulation and accountability from Big Tech intensifies—with good reason. 

Facebook was recently sued in a Kenyan court for its role in the Ethiopian war with previous evidence of poorly managing hate speech in the 2022 Kenyan elections and in Myanmar. Further, as Time Magazine’s recent exposé, ‘Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop’ and Quartz Africa’s series on the gig economy show, platform capitalism and digital work–or ‘jobtech’is far from utopian. Gig work is subject to the same inequalities in offline or traditional labour markets, if not worse—whether informally on social media or governed by e-marketplaces. Pastoralists already surmount unequal access to devices and connectivity, why should they also be forced to deal with further exclusion on these platforms under the allure of increased or reliable incomes? Given what we now know, how might we collaborate with drylands’ businesses, community leaders and local governments to ensure pastoralists can sidestep the dangerous side effects of technology overuse? 

Shoshana Zobuff reminds us that in the harsh glare of surveillance capitalism, we have come to learn that proprietary knowledge now has unprecedented access to us. She explains: ‘We are living in a time when we understand that privacy is a collective action problem. We must look to democracy for remedies. This means law. This means new regulatory paradigms.’ However, we are not powerless. Pastoralists in Northern Kenya, for example, staged a boycott of Safaricom’s monopoly and its high tariffs, pushing customers to switch to a competing provider. Even when the Nigerian government banned Twitter, or Ethiopia and Uganda shut down the internet, their actions reflect a recognition and fear of the collective power of their digital citizens. 

As we co-design an inclusive (digital) future, we—as academics, innovators, artists, and politicians—might learn from pastoralists and approach our use of mobile-based social media to not only complement our offline engagements but also to radically consider its possibilities anew. Imagine the mobile phone has just been invented, or TikTok just launched—how could we ensure safer, secure, more equitable and more inclusive usage of these tools with the insight we have now? In the short term, like SPARC’s research partner Wowzi—a social media influencer marketing platform—more businesses could explore opportunities to acquire new staff and customers in pastoralist regions through similar channels. Products that could be useful to pastoralist communities would potentially have an easier time reaching their target market if fellow pastoralists are endorsing and marketing them.

Intermediaries, including local government and non-profits, could help communities hold technology builders and businesses accountable and limit further exploitation in the drylands’ growing digital ecosystem. The United Nations (UN) has declared 2026 as the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists, with 102 countries and 308 organizations have already shown their support for this movement and in 2021, the UN kicked off the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Alongside those historically marginalized while ensuring they lead the process, there is an opportunity to rebuild the world anew. Switch off your phone, download a local social networking app and get to know new people you may never have met around you, provide feedback to your lawmaker about your experience with connectivity and internet use—we still have more options than we believed possible

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