To coincide with Blog Action Day 2008, which is themed around poverty, I thought it’d be interesting to example the use of mobile phones in the developing world. To us in the western world a computer is something that sits on your lap or desk with a 14″ display, but many people in less economically developed countries interact with the internet in a very different way – through a mobile phone.
In fact the growth of mobile phone usage in these countries has far surpassed expectations. Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, has seen phenomenal increases in mobile phone ownership. There are more people using mobile telephones on the continent than traditional fixed-line phones.
Phone use in Africa is increasing at a rate of 65%, more than twice the global average, but I wanted to highlight a service based in Bangladesh as a fantastic example of how mobile phones are helping to get people out of poverty.
Cellbazaar is a small company based in the capital of Dhaka. It lets anyone conduct business on a market much like eBay. Sellers list their products or services by text message and buyers can also search by SMS. Each advert has a phone number attached, which any prospective buyer can phone to arrange a transaction.
It’s very simple – entirely text-based – but most importantly, people on a cheap pay-as-you-go phone package can connect with people who want to conduct business with them at any time in any place.
Even in the slums of the Indian subcontinent, a very large percentage of people have access to a mobile phone, be it their own, their neighbour’s, or a friend’s. As there are small businesses dotted everywhere amongst the shanty towns, those businesses can now access a much wider audience.
People, too, can more widely advertise their skills. Someone unable to leave the house due to illness or disabilities can still shout about their microbusiness and compete on a level playing field with competitors. This is a powerful positive force in combating poverty.
Motorola understands the power of the developing world, and it has inspired them to create the MOTOFONE. The MOTOFONE is very basic, but has features tailored perfectly to its market. The display is electronic paper, so it can be seen perfectly both in direct sun and in darkness.
It’s ridiculously thin, too. Just 9.1mm. It’s almost entirely enclosed so that dust and moisture can’t get in, but the most impressive feature is the battery life. It can last for 400 hours of standby time – two weeks! – without needing a recharge. That’s really important when electricity is scarce and unreliable.
To accomplish these things, Motorola has had to use cutting-edge technology. That technology, however, is letting people compete in a marketplace that they might not otherwise be able to, and helping them pull themselves out of poverty. I hope that with projects in the future like OLPC, technology will continue to be used to help developing countries, rather than just existing to amuse us in the west.