Sunday, May 10, 2009

Without a Cell Phone I Am Nothing

When I first heard people in the economic development space talk of rolling out mobile phone networks to serve even those making less than $1 a day, I thought they were promoting a consumerism culture that would hurt the poor more than help them. I thought cell phones were a luxury good since even I had only recently started using one regularly.

After traveling to Zambia last October, my perception is much different. I met Nell, a woman who buys tomatoes from farmers and resells them at the market for a profit. When I saw that she had the same model of $20 cell phone that I purchased when I arrived in the country (since my BlackBerry wouldn’t work on the local phone system), I asked her why she uses a cell phone. She shook it in front of my face and said, “Without this I am nothing.” She went on to explain that since she travels miles into the countryside and transportation is very expensive, it is much more convenient and economical for her to call farmers prior to making a trip to their farms.

Basically, Nell uses a cell phone for the same reasons I use a phone: productivity and convenience. The difference is that when I got my first cell phone, I already hand a land line and a vehicle. So even though my first cell phone was largely a luxury, I would go so far as to call Nell’s cell phone is a necessity for her, enabling her to increase her income and raise her quality of life.

A key takeaway for me from this experience is to not rush to judgment before fully understanding the context. And in order to understand the context, it is important to get out and do field research.


Dr. Munish Raizada said...

Very well said! I agree. India has vast rural tracks and populations. Mobile telephony - which has actually spread like an extensive network only in last 6 years- has made connectivity so easy: not just for convenience, also it has made commerce easy for poor people. I heard that in Bangalore, you sms a number and the rickshaw -puller will reach you in 5 minutes!

Laurel LaFLamme said...

What an amazing story. I never thought about it like that. So, technology actually DOES help those who are impoverished. Very good indeed.