Calling for change
When villagers in Namunsi, Uganda, need to make or receive phone calls, they turn to their neighbour Fatima Serwoni, who owns the only mobile phone in the area. The nearest public pay phone is over four kilometres away, and Fatima's prices are reasonable.
Fatima is one of hundreds of village phone operators in Bangladesh, Rwanda and Uganda harnessing telecommunications technologies developed in the North for thriving mini-enterprises. Mostly women, they take out micro-loans to chase their phones, connection cables and pre-paid minutes - with the help of the Grameen Technology Centre - and then rent talk time at a small profit to their customers to make business and personal calls. Literate operators sometimes add text messaging services.
Mobile phones are spreading rapidly throughout the developing world, promising to transform the way people interact and do business, much as the introduction of telegraphs and railways did in Northern countries during the Industrial Revolution. They have a striking impact on development as a 'leapfrog' technology, especially where other forms of communication - such as roads, postal systems, fixed telephone lines and so on - are lacking.
Research suggests that an increase of ten mobile phones per 100 people can boost national economic growth by 0.6 per cent. Mobile phones can reduce transaction costs and risks and save lengthy, expensive journeys. Farmers and fishermen can call different markets to find the best prices for their products, and business owners can order supplies and make secure payments by text message. People can call clinics for health and veterinary advice, and employers and job-seekers can conduct interviews over the phone.
Mobile-phone networks are often cheaper and easier to install than fixed telephone lines, and require less maintenance. Wireless signals can circumvent geographic obstacles - like mountain ranges and vast deserts - that frustrate fixed lines, and mobile infrastructures are less vulnerable to damage by floods, storms, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Africa is the world's fastest-growing market for mobile phones, and other Southern regions are following suit. And as many people often share one handset and subscription, access is more widespread than sales figures suggest. Using the phones does not depend on literacy, education, location or a stable income, so they enable disadvantaged or remote groups of people to participate in the economy. Those without mains electricity can use car batteries, as Fatima does, and wind-up or solar-powered chargers.
Since launching her village phone service, Fatima's weekly income has almost doubled - and her neighbours can access and contribute to the global information flow.
On to the Information Highway
The Ratanakiri region of northeast Cambodia is one of the world's most remote places. The nearest city - the provincial capital, Banlung - is a two-day car journey away over rough, unpaved roads. Its villages have no running water, electricity, phone lines, televisions or newspapers - but the people regularly send and receive e-mail, thanks to a new technology initiative.
Each morning, five intrepid 'motomen' in Banlung download incoming e-mails from a central satellite hub into small boxes with wireless capabilities, then take them by motorcycle to 13 far-flung villages, mainly unreachable by most vehicles or digital signals. In each village, donated solar-powered computers with wireless cards receive the messages and upload outgoing ones, which are collected, biked back to Banlung and sent via the satellite to the Internet at the end of the day.
The project is organized by American Assistance for Cambodia and Japan Relief for Cambodia, funded by private American and Japanese donors and the World and Asian Development Banks, with technology developed by United States firm First Mile Solutions. It keeps villagers abreast of world affairs through online news sources and helps children correspond with overseas donors who supply their school materials. Teachers can send reports to the Ministry of Education and receive them in return, citizens can voice concerns and complaints to government representatives and artisans can market their traditional handicraft products around the world. And through the project, village health workers use a telemedicine programme between Banlung's provincial hospital, Sihanouk Hospital Center of Hope in Phnom Penh, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School to upload photographs of their patients and receive opinions on diagnosis and advice on treatment.
Similar North-South cooperation is bringing the power of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to the poor across the developing world. Farmers can check going rates on world commodity markets online before negotiating crop prices with middlemen. Fishermen can check wave heights and fish movements to avoid dangerous weather and maximize their chances of a big catch. Even people who cannot use computers themselves can listen to pertinent information relayed over loudspeakers by those who can.
The MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) envisions locally staffed knowledge centres (KCs) with community telecommunications equipment in each of India's 600,000-plus villages by 2007. Leading a 100-member-strong alliance between government, civil society, academia, media, private industry and international donors, including Hewlett-Packard Labs India, UNICEF, the Canadian International Development Agency, Friends of the MSSRF Tokyo, to name a few, it seeks to launch a 'learning revolution' and democratize information technology for the poor.
First Mile Solutions PDF Version
|Our moment... our time||'The best thing we could ever do'||Entrepreneurial energy||Rapid power||Widening horizons||Eco-Minds|
|Tunza answers your questions||Greenhouse effect||Developing sustainably... together||Holmes' fire||Paid in smiles||North-South cooperation|
|Trading futures||Netting the ether||Father of invention||Seeds of change||Cultivating health||Seven wonders|
|Tomorrow's world||About Tunza||Contents||Edition française||Versión española|