Eighty percent of the world’s population has access to a mobile communications network, but only half the people have a mobile phone. That kind of opportunity–literally billions of potential customers–has big business on the move. Everyone from product designers to marketers to academics are working to advance the cause of global connectivity.
The fact of which explains why Sara Corbett, writing for The New York Times Magazine, brings a cool eye to her piece on Jan Chipchase and his quest to help people living in poverty emerge from those conditions. His tool of change? Naturally, the cellphone.
Chipchase works for the Finnish cellphone company Nokia as a “human-behavior researcher.” He’s also sometimes referred to as a “user anthropologist.” He gathers the sort of on-the-ground intelligence that is central to human-centered design.
One morning last fall, I arranged to meet Chipchase in a neighborhood in Accra where he and a few other Nokia people were doing research. At his suggestion, I took a taxi to the general area and then called him on his cellphone. Chipchase used his phone to pilot me through the unfamiliar chaos, allowing us to have what he calls a “just in time” moment.
There are a growing number of economists who maintain that cellphones can restructure developing countries in a similar way. Cellphones, after all, have an economizing effect. My “just in time” meeting with Chipchase required little in the way of advance planning and was more efficient than the oft-imperfect practice of designating a specific time and a place to rendezvous. He didn’t have to leave his work until he knew I was in the vicinity. Knowing that he wasn’t waiting for me, I didn’t fret about the extra 15 minutes my taxi driver sat blaring his horn in Accra’s unpredictable traffic. And now, on foot, if I moved in the wrong direction, it could be quickly corrected. Using mobile phones, we were able to coordinate incrementally.
To someone who has spent years using a mobile phone, these moments are common enough to feel banal, but for people living in a shantytown like Nima — and by extension in similar places across Africa and beyond — the possibilities afforded by a proliferation of cellphones are potentially revolutionary.
Speaking to the potential for meaningful change, cellphones as transaction devices is an area that’s getting tons of attention from users and carriers alike. Here’s an interesting scenario that shows how a cell connects people and can facilitate a monetary transaction between them at the same time.
During a 2006 field study in Uganda, Chipchase and his colleagues stumbled upon an innovative use of the shared village phone, a practice called sente. Ugandans are using prepaid airtime as a way of transferring money from place to place, something that’s especially important to those who do not use banks. Someone working in Kampala, for instance, who wishes to send the equivalent of $5 back to his mother in a village will buy a $5 prepaid airtime card, but rather than entering the code into his own phone, he will call the village phone operator (“phone ladies” often run their businesses from small kiosks) and read the code to her. She then uses the airtime for her phone and completes the transaction by giving the man’s mother the money, minus a small commission.
In the developed world, carrying a full-featured cellphone lessens your needs for other things, including a watch, an alarm clock, a camera, video camera, home stereo, television, computer or, for that matter, a newspaper. With the advent of mobile banking, cellphones have begun to replace wallets as well. Which means convenience for the person in Tokyo using a cell to buy sushi from a vending machine. But for the villager in Africa, the cell that helps him get a better price for his produce or other goods, is a lifeline.
Is it hard to believe that a company which sold 40% of the cellular handsets worldwide last year and made $8.4 billion for their efforts, actually cares about the people it serves and hope to serve? Sure. But serving people is at the very core of every business transaction. So, there needn’t be a conflict between genuine service and making a profit.
[UPDATE] One concern that needs to be addressed before getting too excited about the cell phone’s potential to help people, is the fact that cell phones suck power. If billions more are made, sold and put to ggod use, there will be a huge extraction cost for the raw materials to make the phones, ship the phones, etc. And then the phones need to be powered up at all times. Quick, someone invent the solar cellular.