It’ll only cost you 80 cents* to charge your mobile phone… for a year. That’s unbelievably cheap and a negligible expense. After all, what is 80 cents a year?
What if I told you instead that it’ll cost you RM624 to charge your mobile phone for a year? On top of that, it’s going to take you five times as long and you’ll even have to be away from your phone for three days at a time.
That’s exactly what’s happening in the rural orang asli communities in Pahang that is living without electricity.
Costly and Time-Consuming
Pak Asah from Kampung Tanjung buys three 6V batteries a week solely for charging phones; there’s four phone users in his household. They call these “bateri bom” and it’s a very common sight to see these lying around orang asli houses with various wires and devices hooked up to them.
Pak Asah says that he spends RM36 a week on batteries. That’s RM1,872 a year.
Linda from Kampung Jenit has to travel all the way to the next village, Simpai, to charge her phone at a relative’s place. It’s a 3km journey through rough plantation roads that she makes a few times a week in her husband’s old Proton Saga.
We called her once and to our surprise, a manly voice answered. He told us to call back in three days as that’s when she’ll come to collect her phone from his house.
Juriah from Kampung Gong uses her phone to keep in touch with her daughter, who is studying in boarding school. She tells us that she travels to town to charge her phone every few days. The shopkeeper charges her RM1 an hour.
When she doesn’t have the time or money, she would let her phone battery run out, sometimes for weeks on end.
Mobile Phones Can Change Lives
“The quickest way to get out of poverty right now is to have one mobile telephone.” – Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Laureate, Founder and Director of the Grameen Bank, Bangladesh’
Without a doubt, mobile phones have become essential to daily life as an avenue for communication and entertainment. For the poor, the impact of owning a mobile phone goes far beyond that.
As many orang asli villages are in remote locations, a mobile phone can help to save precious time, resources, and money. Farmers can manage their selling and buying with just a phone call, conveniently arranging for produce and goods delivery without having to make multiple trips out of the village.
Soh, a small-farm owner from Kampung Terubing, explains that he finds buyers for his produce – lemongrass, corn, long beans, chilli – through the phone. It’s easy for him to order fertiliser from the supplier as well, and he doesn’t have to travel all the way to town, which is 20km away.
In case of medical emergencies, a phone call can quickly connect the person in need to someone who can send him or her to the nearest hospital, potentially saving lives. Mobile phones are also able to close the distance between these rural communities and the outside world. Functions like FM radio tuner, voice messaging, and video are effective at dispensing information for low-literacy populations, and could even be a tool to improve literacy in the long run.
A phone can connect a community to non-profit organisations and government agencies that can provide training and upskilling opportunities, and also act as a point of contact should there be a crisis like infringement of land rights or a disease outbreak. Linda tells us that her village is vulnerable to land encroachment, and that she relies on her phone to contact a local NGO to report on such cases. It is the fastest and surest way to connect to someone who can help, especially with time-sensitive matters.
While the benefits of mobile phones are plenty for rural villages, what good would it do if the device is dead most of the time or takes up a substantial chunk of one’s income to charge?
Early this year, it was reported that “Malaysia has fourth lowest domestic electricity tariff in the world”. Unfortunately, in these rural villages where the population is in the B40 or hardcore poverty group, electricity is one of the highest domestic expense.
80 cents a year to charge mobile phones for us is nothing, but 80 cents a year for an orang asli family, is everything. If nothing is done to balance this disparity, the poor will continue to pay more and end up becoming poorer with no way to rise above their current circumstances.
Yong Joy Anne, Storyteller
*Figure estimated based on charging a 1,440mAh (5.45Wh) battery with a 5W charger for 2 hours a day at Malaysia’s domestic tariff rates. Actual cost may differ.