Entries tagged with “mobile phones”.


PRI’s The World ran a story today about the boom in renewable energy in the developing world.  The story itself is fine – but I’m tired of reading stories that hang their angle on how amazing/interesting it is that the global poor can be so innovative, and so capable to taking up new technologies – this angle is misguided and condescending, and does a lot to keep us trapped in the development echo chamber that tells us how the global poor would be lost without our help.

The World, like all media, has to draw the reader/listener in with unusual and topical stories.  But this story is not all that unusual – it runs parallel to the explosive growth of mobile phones in the developing world.  When I first started working in Ghana, back in 1997, barely anyone had cell phones.  Landlines were also rare, and nearly impossible to get because the switchboards in places like Cape Coast were maxed out – basically, you had to wait for someone to move or die, which would free up a land line.  The waits for land lines ranged into years.  I could make outbound calls from the Ghana Telecom building in Cape Coast, but I had no means of receiving phone calls.  When I went out to a village to do fieldwork, I effectively disappeared – there was no means of reaching me except word-of-mouth messages passed by people going to and from the village on various errands (though that method was surprisingly effective – I could get a message in well under a day in that manner).

Fast forward to 2004 -when I arrived in Ghana, I borrowed a cell phone from a colleague of mine at the University of Ghana, went out and bought a SIM and some minutes for around $15, and had a phone number within a few hours of touching down in the country.  People could call me, and I could call out, nearly all the time.  Coverage did not extend into the villages in which I was working, but if I climbed a very tall hill behind my house, I could get a wobbly signal.  In 2005, the signal was much stronger.  Since 2006, it has been possible to make and receive calls from the village itself, without having to climb the hill.  And people have adopted the phone as these advances have taken place, to the extent that while these villages do not have electrical service, I have heard a farmer take a call on a mobile phone in his field (the phones are charged on car batteries).

Why the rapid advances in mobile phone technology?  People wanted the service (badly), but the dominant technology of the late 1990s (land lines) was too expensive to extend to everyone who wanted it.  Mobile phones filled the gap . . . and now we see all kinds of innovation in mobile technology starting to emerge from Africa – such as the unique talent pool of low-bandwidth phone app programmers in Kenya.

Given all of this, I am forced to ask why anyone would find the adoption of alternative energy sources by those living in the developing world surprising.  People want and need power, but the infrastructure to bring it to them is very expensive.  Dominase and Ponkrum, the two villages in which I have focused much of my research in Ghana, are less than five kilometers from huge high tension lines carrying electricity from the Akosombo Dam to coastal cities like Takoradi to the West.  Yet they have no electricity themselves, and little hope of seeing the grid extended to them any time soon.  As the story notes:

“One reason why renewable energy is expanding is because of the inadequacy of the power supply in much of the world. Conventional power grids simply don’t reach many people. And when the price of oil goes up, people who use diesel generators start searching for other ways to get power.”

I agree that situations like this one drive innovation (the villagers can run almost anything off of a car battery), but the emergence of alternative energy as one set of innovations is therefore completely unsurprising.

The real story here, as I see it, is the rate of change.  What we are seeing is a remarkable rate of innovation in the developing world around emerging technologies.  Further, this is not all the result of development projects, education, or other capacity-building efforts supplied by advanced economies.  Instead, such as in the case of the Kenyan programmers, these innovations are local phenomenon that illustrate just how capable the people living in the Global South really are.

Perhaps we need to stop writing stories that express surprise and interest in the emergence of new technologies among the global poor, and refocus to carefully explore why some technologies emerge and others do not.  Any time we see a useful, innovative technology hit the Global South without making a major impact, or without people picking it up, we need to explore what is preventing this sort of innovation and impact.  The only reason we don’t, I fear, is because we assume that the global poor are generally incapable of such innovation without outside help.  This is a bad assumption that empowers development projects that are probably not needed or misguided – efforts that could be better spent identifying and removing the barriers to adoption so that these local innovations can flourish.

Blogger Ansel has written a wonderful post that will probably get attention for the pointed way in which it lays out the formulaic, and therefore ultimately useless, character of the vast majority of reporting on post-earthquake Haiti.  I find it interesting because it screams out for one of my pet projects – the need to connect the global poor to one another and to those in wealthier countries in an unfiltered manner.  Nearly-useless journalism is a huge problem if it is the only source of information emerging from a given place.  The impact of this same problematic journalism, however, can be greatly lessened by the presence of many voices reporting from many angles on the same subject.  At this time, despite the various platitudes about the wonders of mobile phone technology and the internet that are repeated in development circles, the enormous potential of these tools has yet to be realized.  We need to be more honest about this, lest it sound like the technology is there and the only problem is the backward people who won’t use it.

I wonder, though, how comfortable the development industry will be with the gradual, inevitable emergence of many voices through these technologies.  What will we do when the people in whose names we are ostensibly working start telling us no and begin to call out our failures – and do so in a public forum?

Via Mashable: How Mobile Technology is a Game Changer for Developing Africa.

There are a lot of initiatives out there that engage with mobile phones for development.  The most impressive I have seen is Lifelines India, in part coordinated by some friends and colleagues at Development Alternatives.  Volunteers bring the phones to villages, and for a small fee they can call a number and record their questions. Each farmer receives a reference number for the query and can call back in a day and use that reference number to access the reply. The project promised and delivered rapid replies to queries (less than twenty-four hours) and provided information of great value to farmers.  Today it reaches around 150,000 farmers in four Indian states.

This is but one of many initiatives.  The Global Adaptation Information Network project I have been part of for the past four years is heavily predicated on using mobile phones to connect communities throughout the Global South.  And Mickey Glantz has toyed with the idea of expanding Sparetime University to mobile platforms to expand access,

What this article failed to recognize, though, is the interesting boom in cell phone app development in Africa right now – app developers in Kenya are recognized as some of the best in the world at designing lightweight apps for low bandwidth networks.  For those who are fed up with lazy, bloated coding of software here in the US (why your programs run so slowly, even on new computers and fast internet connections), it may be that Africa is the future . . .