Can You Hear Us Now?

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A farmer uses a cell phone to check international coffee prices on a small-scale plantation in western Uganda.

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.

Among the many ramifications of this change, perhaps the biggest is economic. Now, not only can people stay in touch with their friends and family, they can also talk to business partners, get market reports, and recruit clients. Mobile technology provides a significant boost to the incomes of those on the bottom rung of the ladder. In fact, a study from the London Business School concluded that each 10 percent increase in mobile phone use meant a 0.6 percent boost to GDP in developing countries.

In Uganda, farmers can send text messages for commodity prices or weather reports. In South Africa, a software service called Mobenzi allows the unemployed to find and conduct work via cell phone. Jobs and revenue are created as millions of people buy and sell phone cards. In Ghana, some people even build towers for subscribers to climb (for a fee) so they can get reception in hilly areas.

The rising popularity of cell phone technology in Africa is resulting in startups with big business potential. A new service called PesaPal allows people to shop by mobile phone. Founder Agosta Liko lived in the United States for several years, working in banking and information technology, before moving back to Kenya.

“There was no consumer payment system,” Liko says. “People couldn’t open PayPal accounts, so I decided to build something. Now I can pay my guys a good wage, which is the best way to alleviate poverty.”

I’ve always admired the ingenious ways that people in the developing world jerry-rig solutions to their problems. I’ve seen wheelbarrows assembled from sticks and boards, frying pans made from old car parts, and irrigation channels constructed from the husks of banana trees. I’ve even read of people making cars and a helicopter from scratch.

There’s also the case of William Kamkwamba, a Malawian boy who had to drop out of school. In a library, he found an old science book, which he used to build a windmill out of discarded parts. The homemade windmill powered lights in his parents’ house and pumped water during a massive drought.

I first heard of Kamkwamba’s story on AfriGadget, a website that show­cases all kinds of technical ingenuity born of scarcity. The site is the brainchild of Erik Hersman, a web developer raised in Kenya and Sudan by American missionary parents.

Hersman is also the founder of That site came together during Kenya’s election violence in 2008, when Hersman and some friends developed a program that allowed people to report incidents of violence via text messages, which made possible the creation of a comprehensive crisis map. The platform is now called Ushahidi (Swahili for testimony) and is being used to monitor elections in India, to track violence in the war in Congo, and to monitor rainforest destruction in Madagascar.

Ushahidi is one more example of how technology is helping people of limited means gain a degree of control over their situations. Another is small-plot irrigation systems that are helping farmers in Ghana boost productivity through the dry season.

Even something like light can improve a poor family’s situation. “Providing bright light impacts so many facets of people’s lives,” says Dorcas Cheng-Tozun of D.light Design, a company that has sold hundreds of thousands of low-cost solar lights to rural communities in more than 40 countries. “It allows them to work for longer hours and more productively. It lets children study longer. And people save a significant amount of money on kerosene.”

The productivity boost associated with these technologies might seem small to us, but they’re a great boon to the world’s poor. One World Bank report found that advances in technology were key factors in reducing the number of people in developing countries living on less than a dollar a day from 29 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2004, with that number expected to drop to 10 percent by 2015.

One day when I was living in Tanzania, I was talking to a neighbor. He was from Germany and was not well liked in the area, for reasons that were becoming apparent. That day, he was complaining about an expensive solar water heater that had been donated from overseas but was already broken and in need of repairs. The problem, he told me, was that when you have a complicated machine, you need a white man to take care of it. A white man, he added, with his own car.

This statement left me speechless for several reasons. For starters, it was obviously untrue, a fact that has been clearly demonstrated in the years since.

“There are three myths about technology,” says Harish Hande, cofounder of SELCO-India, a “social enterprise” that has sold solar lighting systems to more than 115,000 households in India. “One is that poor people cannot afford sustainable technologies. Another is that poor people cannot maintain sustainable technologies. And a third is that social ventures cannot be run as commercial entities.”

The trap the German fell into was what we might call the “solar-oven fallacy.” The solar oven is a simple idea that has actually been around for a few hundred years. It is sometimes touted as a panacea for issues ranging from women’s rights to global warming. The Peace Corps distributed them in the 1960s, and a cardboard version called the Kyoto Box recently won a prestigious $75,000 design prize. On the surface, the idea seems like a good one: Use the sun to cook food. Free heat. No chopping or carrying wood. And yet, ironically, the solar cooker has not set the developing world on fire.

“Solar ovens are not that complicated,” says Paul Polak, author of Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail and founder of International Development Enterprises, which has sold half a million low-cost drip irrigation systems throughout the developing world. “What is complicated is learning the cultural patterns of people in Africa and how they might interact with that technology.”

The drawbacks of solar ovens are many: They take several hours to cook food; they don’t function in the rainy season; wind can knock them over; they simply won’t work for people who are up before dawn or need to cook after dark. So while it may seem like a good idea to someone sitting in an office in Washington, D.C., the benefits might be less clear to a woman in a wattle house in Zambia.

“Poor people will enthusiastically embrace something if they can see it will improve their lives,” says Polak. “But they’re looking for practical solutions–things that work–for the problems they’re facing.”

In the end, the solar oven solves a problem very few people face: How to cook lunch on a sunny day.

According to Hande, companies like SELCO-India are looking for practical solutions for real challenges in the developing world. “We look at what the need is, then tailor the product to the need,” he says. “We are intervening with a product that either increases people’s income or uplifts their quality of life, so it’s a win-win situation.”

SELCO sells not only low-cost solar lighting but also power inverters, biomass cooking stoves, and solar water heaters. And while it doesn’t donate anything, its focus is neither simply making money nor providing charity, but embracing a new model, like that used by D.light Design.

“We feel strongly that market solutions and for-profit social enterprises will be a growing part of development,” says Cheng-Tozun. “We see the customers we are trying to serve as just that: customers. We have to understand them and know what they want, because they ultimately have the choice: Do they like our product or not? They’ll let us know by whether they choose to buy it.”

This can be uncomfortable terrain for many of us who believe that altruism and self-interest are fundamentally at odds. But as ideas like these evolve, a more nuanced picture is emerging, and growth is not seen as a zero-sum game.

“The mobile-phone carriers are making money hand over fist and making a lot of great change happen,” says Hersman, who also recently launched a technology innovation hub in Nairobi. “I think we’re starting to see that businesses work here. Why not figure out a good business model, build it, and treat it like a real business instead of giving subsidies that provide a false floor and doom the project from the beginning?”

There is no false floor under 24-year-old Wilfred Mworia, a Kenyan software engineer who was sitting on his couch one day in his small apartment in Nairobi when an idea came to him: What if you could keep a journal on your phone–more specifically, on your iPhone–but instead of just writing, you could include pictures and audio? Mworia was able to scrape together funding to start a company to develop his “iScribe.” Now that company, African Pixel, is doing its part to help the Kenyan economy grow.

At this pace, there’s no telling what the lives of people in the developing world will look like in 10 years. For ambitious youths like Mworia, the path to the future is clear, and technology is helping them put it in their own hands.

Frank Bures writes frequently about Africa; his work was included in the book Best American Travel Writing 2009. Excerpted from the Holiday 2010 issue of World Ark: The Magazine of Heifer International.

This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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