Understanding the Last Mile Areas from a Development Perspective

By: Waithira Gichiri | waithira@power-offgrid.com

The Last Mile is a phrase that has been brought to the forefront with the inception of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. The goals seek to reach the furthest first and leave no one behind. The term last mile can be traced to the telegram period, where one had to use a horse or bicycle to bring a telegram to the recipient from the receiving point i.e. the end of the telegram line. Today in telecommunications, it refers to the final leg, the end of the delivery process, after laying the infrastructure, developing a product or service, how the customer will actually receive it1. The UNDP describes the last mile as the people, places and small enterprises that are under-served and excluded. Some factors inhibit them from accessing opportunities that allow them to lead a quality life. These circumstances result in communities living in these areas disadvantaged as they lack the choices and opportunities to realize their potential, yield benefits from development, and therefore face exclusion from global development progresses. We can take the telegram to represent the development and ask how come it is not reaching some of its target.

Rufin and Márquez1 perceive this last mile problem to arise due to ineffectiveness in supplying utilities. Utilities are products characterized by the ability to meet basic needs i.e. water, energy, communication, and the physical networks needed to supply them such as roads. The physical networks affect distribution of basic services. Some examples of basic services are health care, social welfare and education. The lack of physical networks results in extra burdens on communities in these regions who pay more for goods and services, as the cost reflects the difficulties in getting these goods and services to them. Further equipping a health facility might take longer due to the challenges in getting to it, affecting their access to healthcare. Other factors that affect this supply of basic utilities and create such scenarios are insecurity, conflict and fragility of an area. These basic utilities are important as they form a foundation, a stepping stone towards a quality life. For example, access to education and training increases one’s employability and a lack of access to healthcare facilities affects productivity, all of which affects one’s participation in the economy. An area with no electricity and infrastructure supporting internet access denies it the opportunity to take advantage of these advancements and the benefits that come with it. Hence, development is not reaching the last mile areas due to the lack of a means to get it there and the lack of capability to take advantage of it. It would be difficult for an illiterate person to take advantage of the internet.

Last mile areas often lack access to basic utilities such as water.|Photo: Power Off-Grid

Governments are responsible for overcoming these constraints that hinder participation in the gains of human development and for creating opportunities. An example of these gains are advancements in human medicine that can allow one to lead a long and healthy life. Governments fail to overcome these constraints due to among other factors inefficiency, corruption, or limited capacity for instance in financial resources. In some last mile areas there might lack a functional government or one whose sovereignty is challenged making fulfilling such responsibilities a challenge. The private sector can provide these utilities but it is discouraged in venturing into such markets by the lack of physical networks, among the other factors affecting the last mile. This is attributable to the associated costs in establishing or upgrading them. Further due to the uncertainty of recovering the costs from sales to customers in these regions whilst making a profit. This discourages facilities such as financial institutions from being established in such areas denying the residents and businesses access to financial services such as capital. As a result, the last mile areas are excluded and the inequality gap between them and others with such facilities widens.

This last mile area problem is found in both urban and rural areas. The area can be a neighbourhood, a village, a district, a province, or even a country. The problem is experienced by people living in geographically remote and sparsely populated areas such as communities in Ladakh in the Himalayas. Ladakh’s location is at around 13,000 to 15,000 feet and lacks infrastructure like roads and bridges, making it difficult to get there. In areas affected by conflict and insecurity for instance some regions in Somalia, where insecurity inhibits setting up and running of businesses. By communities facing discrimination like the Roma1 in Europe, a situation that has resulted in a majority facing the risk of living under their country’s poverty line with others facing lack of access to basic utilities. This problem is further exacerbated by a weak socio-economic structure, limited influence, and control over resources, which affects the area’s or population’s ability to pressure their government into action.

Among the characteristics of last mile areas is the lack of physical networks such as roads.|Photo: Power Off-Grid

From this we can answer our question and say the last mile area problem can arise where an area experiences 1) a lack of opportunities to access utilities which includes basic needs and the physical networks required to provide them, 2) insecurity and is fragile, 3) geographical remoteness and inaccessibility, 4) inefficiency of government efforts, 5) weak community composition and influence, and 6) the population is discriminated, just to mention a few. The problem in the past has been that development efforts have ended at the metaphorical paved road, exactly where the last mile begins. This can be likened to leaving the telegram in the middle of the journey, up to where it’s comfortable to ride the bicycle and not getting it to the recipient, or at a point where the inhabitants have the means to collect it. In some cases, this is understandably so due to insecurity in these areas but this has only served to further exclude such areas.

Deconstructing the last mile not only provides an opportunity to extend this road but also sheds light on the entry points. It facilitates developing approaches to bridge the gap between development and its target in these areas i.e. to reach the last mile. The nature of the last mile areas demands that utilities are provided in a manner that reflect their environment. For instance, when providing energy access: is the source affordable? Can repairs and maintenance be easily done in that the spare parts are readily available? Is there skill and labour to maintain the systems? Can the users be able to operate the systems without difficulty? The characteristics differ from one last mile to the other, for instance from the examples mentioned in Ladakh inaccessibility is the inhibiting factor while in some of the regions in Somalia it is its fragility and lack of infrastructure and good governance, hence calling for customized, participatory approaches in reaching the last mile areas and to fulfilling the SGDs pledge of leaving no one behind.

Waithira Gichiri is a researcher at Power Off-Grid, a social enterprise innovatively empowering people by providing renewable energy access in Somalia.


  1. Soman, D. (2015). The last mile: Creating social and economic value from behavioral insights / Dilip Soman; with illustrations by Yue Zhuo. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  2. Rufin, C., & Márquez, P. C. (Eds.). (2011). Private utilities and poverty alleviation: Market initiatives at the base of the pyramid. Cheltenham, Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10448558
  3. Korunovska, N. & Jovanovic, Z. (2020). Roma in the Covid-19 Crisis: An Early Warning from Six EU Member States. Open Society Foundation. Retrieved from https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Roma%20in%20the%20COVID-19%20crisis%20-%20An%20early%20warning%20from%20six%20EU%20Member%20States.pdf

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