Can You Hear Us Now?

Why technology is Africa’s latest, greatest poverty fighter

  • Can-You-Hear-Us-Now
    A farmer uses a cell phone to check international coffee prices on a small-scale plantation in western Uganda.
    Bloomberg via Getty Images

  • Can-You-Hear-Us-Now

Back in the mid-1990s I was living in a semirural area on the slopes of Mount Meru, just outside Arusha, Tanzania. Now and then I had to make a phone call back home to America.

This was not then an easy thing to do. I would venture out to inquire about using one of the few phone lines at neighboring houses. Often, these lines would be broken, or working spottily, and it could take weeks to arrange a repair.

Usually, I would end up knocking on the door of a business in town (owned by friends of friends), trying to be unobtrusive as I listened to the crackly sound of the voice of the woman I would later marry. Our words seemed to run into each other, and we each had to wait a minute to be able to hear the other. In the lag, the distance seemed tangible.

These days, when I’m in Africa, I tell people this story and they laugh. They laugh as if I was telling them I used to hunt with rocks and start fires with sticks. Technology in the developing world has changed so much and so fast that it’s almost hard to believe.

Last year I took a bus across West Africa. Somewhere in the middle of Burkina Faso, as I sat looking out the window at the dusty trees, I took a phone out of my pocket and called my wife. This time, the sound was clear. There was no delay. It was almost as if she was sitting next to me.

I may have been the only passenger dialing America, but I was far from the only one with a phone. There are now 415 million mobile subscribers in Africa, and two-thirds of the world’s 5 billion users are in the developing world. India and China alone added 700 million new cell phone contracts between 2000 and 2007, and the numbers continue to rise.

3/21/2011 7:20:15 PM

There is a fundamental flaw in the theory of supply and demand. When you eliminate the demander (no matter how passively) you limit the need exponentially and in turn reduce the commodative requirment. Physics dictates you cannot surpass exhaust with intake and have no relative effect. The bio-physics of human anatomy tell us this yet we still defy the theory proven over millions of years. Go figure.

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