Friday, January 18

Africa: “Keep Your $100 Laptops, We’ll Study By Phone!”

by Piers Fawkes

Regular readers may have noticed that we’ve been banging on about the revolution that the mobile phone is making in the developing world (and therefore the ridiculousness of US-designed inventions such as the misguided $100 laptop). In an article called ‘Do We Really Need A $100 Laptop?’ in August 07, we said,

The mobile phone is one of the most important pieces of technology spreading across the developing world - and it’s changing the way people, communities and business connect with each other in these areas. Outside the US people use phones in a way many Americans can’t really comprehend. In June we argued in the piece The Three Region Theory For Mobile Phones that people have a different relationship to their phones and PCs depending on which one was introduced first to the mass market. Where phones appeared before the PC - as in many developing parts of the world - the phones become the predominant access to the internet - and in some ways the de-facto computer.

On the same theme, the BBC has a great story that explains how the phone is changing education in Africa:

Unfortunately, rich country biases limit understanding of this amazing phenomenon: for those in North America or Western Europe the cell phone is primarily or uniquely a phone designed to make voice calls.

In the rich world, even those who use the mobile for other tasks such as e-mail almost always do so as an adjunct to their “computer” (ie, the desktop or laptop in their home or office): the mobile phone is used for those tasks only when the “computer” isn’t accessible.

…this revolution of personally-financed wirelessly-connected computers largely goes unnoticed by the international development community, and because their paradigm revolves around desktops and laptops they spend millions developing specialised laptops for schoolchildren in developing countries, which will surely only ever reach a small fraction of them, while the network of invisible computers continues its exponential penetration into those same regions, below the radar.

Of course, even in the high-growth areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the fastest growing cell phone market in the world, most people still don’t have a cell phone of their own (though many have access to one via a friend or family member).

But important sub-groups in that region have much higher penetration than the general population, including knowledge workers such as teachers or healthcare providers.

The question we should be asking ourselves, then, is not “how can we buy, and support, and supply electricity for, a laptop for every schoolteacher” (much less every schoolchild), but rather “what mobile software can we write that would really add value for a schoolteacher (or student, or health worker, or businessperson) and that could run on the computer they already have in their pocket?”

The story goes on to look at the impact of mobile banking - something Danah Boyd picks up on her blog and how the troubles in Kenya have impacted the opportunity for Kenyans to get credit for their phones. She explains the system and points out that telephony has become vital for survival:

Kenyan phone users do not have monthly phone plans; they pay for prepaid credits (like most of the world). Prior to the election, getting credits was easy - they were available in kiosks, stores, bars, anywhere you could imagine. Yet, these venues all closed shop after the election because of the violence and looting. Credits have become a rare commodity and the price has skyrocketed. Credits have also turned into a currency and people are trading credits for food and medicine. Credits are worth more than the government’s currency. Because of difficulties in getting credits to citizens, a service called Pyramid of Peace has popped up to help people send credits to Kenyans.

Part of why people are so shocked about what is going on in Kenya right now is because Kenya was so stable. (I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if Gore supporters would’ve taken to the streets after my country’s corrupt election rather than be so complacent.) When people think about what is necessary when everything goes haywire, they normally talk about food, water, shelter, medicine. What does it mean that telephony has become a central player in people’s lives? What does it mean that access to communication technology is necessary for access to food, water, medicine?

via PSFK

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