Mobile phones vs the food basket in Guatemala

Published on 12 April 2016

In Guatemala, ownership and use of mobile phones is affecting how and what families to choose to eat. As part of our Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility series, Alma Olivet looks at the impact of mobile phones in people’s food security.

Today, we eat mobile phones!

This expression could be about the influence mobile-phone technology in the life of both urban and rural families in Guatemala. It could also be colloquialism describing some of the conflicting priorities facing families when it comes to spending any surplus income.

When couples spend income on products that threaten family priorities, especially food purchases; wives sarcastically ask: “And what will we eat today … phone cigars???”.

And there are many homes that have this type of problem and where wives find themselves posing similar questions. And the sense of humour of Guatemalans, despite the adverse circumstances, is not lost.

It’s quite common for one or more family members use any family disposable income to buy products that can soon become a steady monthly cost (such as mobile phone expense), rather than spending it on the family’s food requirements.

Maybe mobile phone expenses will not have the same impact on family incomes as alcohol consumption, but day by day the fever of mobile phones are growing, especially among young people. And young people who are growing up with access to these technologies are now becoming the household heads, either in the immediate present or in the near future.

There no longer exists a communication barrier, this shift means that the cost of mobile phones has become an expense that affects the economy of the most vulnerable families living in poverty.

Prevalence of mobile phones in all aspects of daily life means they are no longer a mere luxury

During the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility study, we found that in both urban and rural households, while precarious incomes already do not cover basic needs, they are being squeezed even more, when in family they have to included ‘superfluous’ expenses. Although the study did not aim to investigate the impact of mobile phones on people’s food security, it was impossible not to notice on the fact that mobile phones have now become indispensable; especially for male household heads.

Margarita Ramirez, a Guatemalan anthropologist and researcher who is currently conducting a study on the use of cell phones, said “The key demographics here are young people because they buy smart phones, use social networks, watch videos, etc.. All of this they buy with their own money, which is money they are then no longer contributing to the household income. Mobile phones are also essential to communicate with family members who have migrated, either in the country or abroad.”

In rural areas, adults are using mobile phones for their productive labour; for example, agricultural day labourers have phones to inform them of their daily rota. There are also farmers belonging to producer groups, and traders who rely on their phones to communicate with employers, customers, clients, and so on. In the course of the Life in a Time study, we found that there was at leastone mobile phone in every single household we visited.

Overall, within rural families it is the male head of household who has access to the mobile phone and in some cases young people who, when they start working, spend a lot of their income on phones and top-up.

The cost mobile phones can represent a significant proportion of household expenditure

Preliminary results of a study of conducted on the use of cell phones in Guatemala indicate that most people top up their credits with GTQ5 or GTQ10 (the equivalent to USD$ 0.67- UDS$ 1.33) every three days.

In some households, living in poverty and/or extreme poverty, the monthly expenditure on phone varies from GTQ 20.00 to GTQ 30.00 (USD$ 2.67- USD$ 4.0) at least, but the amount can also be much greater. This means that typically monthly expenditure on mobile phones can represent at least 5% of total expenditure on non-essentials. Adults make up the majority of phone users, but their phone expenditure is mostly about paying to have a phone and a number on which they can be contacted. However, younger respondents are the biggest spenders.

Given how frequently the amount spent on mobile phones was significant and having an impact on the expenses prioritization processes within households, it was clear to us that we needed to look at the effect of phone expenses on the basic basket. However,it was difficult to draw definitive conclusions when it comes to assessing the impact of mobile phone ownership and usage on the basic food basket.

Are mobile phones perceived as an essential commodity or a dangerous addition?

Amongst those we spoke to, there were varying opinions on the exact costs incurred by phone use. Many even questioned whether mobile phones had now become essential commodities. They pointed to the fact that, even in the most rural households in Guatemala, people can own several phones, and pay for phone units as soon as they have got some cash. Even with households that have no access to electricity, people will pay to recharge the phone battery in another house that does have electricity.

In this context, respondents compared phones to other addictions such as alcohol or cigarettes, which negatively impact a family’s income, rather than as essential item for modern life. And to a certain extent, I agree that they should not be included in the basic basket.

However, whatever your opinion on the matter, our study did find ownership and use of mobile phones does affect access to the products needed to feed families, and as such they cannot be dismissed as being merely a fad or frivolity.

Alma Olivet is author of the article ‘Life Around the Firewood Stove: The Impact of Price Volatility‘ from the recently IDS Bulletin Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility. This journal is open access and articles are free to download.


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