Nowadays, we mostly take our cell phones for granted. They’re just part of how we function. It’s hard to remember life that didn’t include hearing someone’s ringtone going off at an inopportune moment.
They are a convenience that enable us to work more effectively, keep tabs on family members and our social activities. But in developing countries, cell phones are even more dynamic, and are creating fundamental societal and economic change.
The Economist honed in on cellphones as change agents in its emerging telecom markets package. In the developing world, cell phone usage has exploded. Households spend more on cell phones than they do on anything else, and that includes survival basics like water and energy.
The reason why mobile phones are so valuable to people in the poor world is that they are providing access to telecommunications for the very first time, rather than just being portable adjuncts to existing fixed-line phones, as in the rich world. “For you it was incremental—here it’s revolutionary,” says Isaac Nsereko of MTN, Africa’s biggest operator. According to a recent study, adding an extra ten mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts growth in GDP per person by 0.8 percentage points.
This presents a lucrative opportunity for telecom producers and investors. And for social entrepreneurs and microcreditors, the idea that wealth can be generated by increasing the number of cell phones should be intriguing.
This begs some thought. Could our tax dollars for foreign aid be channeled more efficiently? What if we had a program dedicated toward making sure every adult in the developing world had access to a mobile phone? How would that affect issues like hunger, health and supporting local businesses? Perhaps assisting a communications infrastructure, whether it be cell phone or Internet, presents the swiftest way to enable people to fight poverty.
More questions than answers, to be sure. But the possibilities of mobile money are exciting.
From The Economist:
With such phones now so commonplace, a new opportunity beckons: mobile money, which allows cash to travel as quickly as a text message. Across the developing world, corner shops are where people buy vouchers to top up their calling credit. Mobile-money services allow these small retailers to act rather like bank branches. They can take your cash, and (by sending a special kind of text message) credit it to your mobile-money account. You can then transfer money (again, via text message) to other registered users, who can withdraw it by visiting their own local corner shops. You can even send money to people who are not registered users; they receive a text message with a code that can be redeemed for cash.
A microeconomy can be created via text message. And this microeconomy bypasses governments. With corruption and political instability being the hallmark of too many developing economies, what does it mean for political power when citizens start creating their own currency that governments cannot control?
The United Nations has instituted a program aimed at Iraqi refugees living in Syria, where the refugees can receive a text message food voucher, which they can use to purchase food.
“People will no longer need to queue at food distribution points or travel long distances to distribution centres,” according to WFP [World Food Program] Syria Country Director Muhannad Hadi. “They will also be able to have a more diversified diet, based on their own personal choices and preferences.”
The challenge is out there to our progressive community to think in forward-looking ways about how to fight poverty and hunger. Coders and programmers might find their roles pivotal, by creating cell phone applications that will not just entertain, but that empower and transform lives.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user whiteafrican.