They can’t be poor, they have mobile phones!

This is a phrase that has often been repeated in Sweden lately, mostly when talking about the growing amount of Romani beggars on the streets of Swedish cities. The beggars usually come from very poor conditions in Rumania, where Romani people face horrible living conditions and institutionalized discrimination sponsored by state politics. One article in a Swedish newspaper described begging on the streets of Sweden as staying in a luxury hotel compared to their situation at home.

The growing numbers of beggars have stirred controversy in Sweden, and some accuse the beggars of not actually being poor, but rather faking it, claiming that the beggars are organized or being used by crime syndicates, even though that hypothesis has never been proven. One of the main arguments voiced is that the beggars can’t really be poor since they’ve been seen owning and using mobile phones, sometimes even smartphones.

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I spent the past fall doing a semester abroad at Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. In the first week, we went to visit an NGO who is providing poor people in rural areas with no access to the electrical grid the possibility to cheaply set up solar panels on their houses. The solar panels provide just enough electricity for the house to have a few lamps and electric outlets. The village was really just a few scattered houses around a couple of small overgrown lakes where the women did the laundry, children played and the families bathed to clean themselves.

It wasn’t my first time visiting an impoverished areas in a developing country, but this time I noticed something different on my way back to the bus. The villagers were playing on their phones, and some of them were – more or less concealed – taking pictures of us, the white visitors. The fact that most people in the village had phones, before they even had proper access to electricity, and absolutely no access to proper cleaning facilities made me realize what an important tool the mobile phone has become. Phones are no longer the luxury it used to be, it’s a necessary tool for everyone. There is an important shift of power going on when foreign visitors in rural, poor villages are the objects being viewed through the camera lens of the villagers.

For all I know, the pictures of us may have been shared with their friends through WhatsApp or Snapchat, with a funny comment about my weird blond hair.

India is second only to China when it comes to the number of mobile phones in use, and it’s the fastest growing mobile market in the world. In India, there’s even more people owning a mobile phone, than there are people with access to real toilets. Even though a lot of the growth comes from new people getting connected, the market is simultaneously undergoing significant change since many users are shifting from their old ‘dumb’-phones to newer smartphones, and the smartphone market is growing at 45% YoY. With smartphone prices as low as €28, India is becoming more and more connected, through texting, calling, and data.

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Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) is an important tool when it comes to achieving the millenium development goals, and more and more governments, companies and NGOs are using technology to improve the life for people at the bottom of the pyramid.

The most cited usages are project to improve the daily lives of farmers, who through text messages and phone calls can get up to date information about weather and prices at the local markets. Since many rural farmers currently have to walk or bike extensive distances to reach the market, a quick phone call can determine what produce is of short stock at the market that particular day or what the market price of their stock is, so they don’t get ripped off by buyers. Technologies have also been developed so that farmers can start or stop their irrigation systems to water their fields far away from home, only by using their mobile phone.

The time that is saved through those technologies is extensive, and the extra time that can be spent on other activities is of great value.

Along with the increasing productivity of connected farmers, the industry for mobile banking and mobile commerce is providing solutions for money transfer and the ability to pay bills and manage saving through the phone. India’s Airtel provides several mobile banking solutions for their customers without the need of owning a credit card or even a bank account. Credit cards and formal bank services are still a far flung dream for many of India’s poor, but the ability to use their phones for this enables them to put their saving in a secure place, and saves them the time of queueing at the bank for hours only to pay their bills.

With the growing amount of smartphones, data traffic is increasing rapidly, even though the 3G network in India is still patchy even in the larger cities. Setting up 3G networks is an expensive infrastructure endeavour and as all major infrastructure projects, it’s bound to take time before the rural areas get a stable 3G connection. However, several major MNCs are working on project on bringing WiFi connectivity to rural areas. With the great business opportunities it means to bring the next four billion people online, Google, Facebook and SpaceX all have their own visions on how to bring internet to the unserved, using balloons, drones and satellites. It is only a matter of time until the whole world is covered with access to the internet.

When Mark Zuckerberg announced his plan to use drones to provide internet in rural areas and simultaneously proclaiming connectivity as one of the most important aspects of development, he faced unexpected critique from Bill Gates. The famous philanthropist recently spoke out about why he believes that connectivity is not the main issue for the world’s poor, saying that treating malaria and making sure that communities have access to water, food and medicine is a more pressing issue.

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Bill realized this while demonstrating a computer in an impoverished village somewhere in Africa back in 1997. The village had borrowed a generator so that Bill could do this one demonstration, and of course the computer was somewhat superfluous comparing to other needs in the village. However, I believe that Gates is missing the point when he’s rejecting the need for connectivity. First of all, we’ve come a long way in developing our technology from the 1997 computer that Bill demonstrated. Sure thing, Excel, Word and Minesweeper is not on top of the needs at the bottom of the pyramid. However, in a not so distant future, we may very well see an impoverished woman with a sick child googling for the number to a nearby doctor, calling the doctor for medical advice and then ordering and paying the medicine with her phone, leaving time to comforting the child while she’s waiting for a drone to deliver the medicine within an hour.”

 

As far as we have come today with mobile technologies for development, we’ve only just seen the tip of the iceberg. For many, the phone is their lifeline, their only way to connect and transfer funds to faraway family, and their method of joining the developed world into the future. Today, in developing as well as developed countries, having a phone in no way implies being rich, but it does mean that there may be a way out of poverty.

 

Johan Casspe

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One thought on “They can’t be poor, they have mobile phones!

  1. Nice article Johanne. You have captured a very unique development in India in the last 5-10 years. The penetration of mobile phones has indeed surprised many. However, the contribution of data in all but tier-1 cities is less than 5% of the total revenues of a telecom provider. In fact any new idea for increasing data usage or an innovative way for reaching geographically remote customers through their mobile phones would be highly treasured by large corporations. It is the hotbed for future innovation.

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