The average person reading this article probably owns a cell phone. In many cases, the phone may be that individual’s primary (or only) phone. We take it for granted that mobile phones are a part of our daily lives … and most of us don’t remember how we managed to get through our days without them. However that’s not true for the large number of people who are currently living in third world countries. It’s increasingly likely that these people may own a cell phone (they’re the biggest current market for new subscriptions) but they definitely don’t take this new technology for granted. Mobile phones are improving their economies and offering opportunities that weren’t available to them just a few short years ago. And since they’re able to learn from the mistakes of the first world, these third world countries are seeing technological innovations take place at a much faster pace than happened for the first world at the early stages of mobile phone development.
The Global Mobile Market
There are over three billion people in the world with mobile phone subscriptions today. That’s certainly a lot of people, but when you consider the fact that there are over six billion people making up our global population, you realize that only about fifty percent of the world has a mobile phone. The majority of those people who do not have a mobile phone subscription are concentrated in the third world, primarily in Africa and underdeveloped countries in Asia.
Those numbers are changing rapidly. Adoption of mobile technology is happening much more quickly among these countries than initially took place when mobile technology was first developed for the first world. For example, Wireless Intelligence reports that it took twenty years to reach the milestone of selling one billion phones. To go from two billion to three billion took only two years. Much of that growth can be attributed to the significant portion of third world countries that are starting to purchase mobile phones.
According to the International Telecommunications Union, nearly seventy percent of new mobile phone subscriptions are coming from third world countries. This technology is causing improvements to the economy which are narrowing the digital divide between first and third world countries and enhancing the ability of developing nations to compete and thrive in the global market. As this technology develops, we’re seeing a trend towards an even more unified world than the one we currently have in place.
Increasing Efficiency and Productivity in the 3rd World
Your cell phone is probably critical to getting things done in the course of your daily life. How do you find your friends in a crowd when you don’t have a phone to locate them? How do you contact an important business associate to let them know your cab is stuck in traffic if there’s no mobile phone to reach them? You rely on your mobile phone. In other words, the mobile phone is a prerequisite to maintaining a fast-paced, modern way of life. Sure, you could go back to the way that things used to be done – setting specific appointment times and locations, lingering around and wondering what was going on every time someone was late. However, this would significantly decrease your ability to be productive by cutting into the valuable resource of time on an ongoing basis.
This is the situation for people who are living and working in the third world today. They are forced to rely on a slower method of taking care of business. However, that’s changing as mobile phone technology makes its way into these countries. As developing countries start creating businesses that are geared towards turning a profit, mobile phones become necessary to that growth. As those mobile phones are brought in, efficiency increases and profits rise. As a result, the economy improves when mobile phones are brought to these developing nations.
Teach a Man to Fish
Consider the old adage that says “give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime”. That’s the philosophy behind the push to bring mobile phone technology to third world countries. Rather than bringing international aid to countries that will ultimately deplete that resource, it is critical that developed nations bring resources to these countries which will allow them to ultimately become self-reliant. The mobile phone is one of those resources. It allows people in these countries to grow their businesses, increase their productivity and stay more connected to the communities that they are a part of. This enhances the economy of the area and allows the people of these communities to become more self-sustaining.
Bangladesh’s “Phone Ladies”
One example of this sort of self-sustaining “teach a man to fish” success story is seen in the case of the “phone ladies” in Bangladesh. These women have taken advantage of the “microfinance industry” which lends a small amount of money to a person in the third world for the purpose of developing a business. The phone ladies all used their money to purchase phone kits through a company called Grameen Bank. They used the phone kits to provide phone services to people in their communities who didn’t have access to their own phones, charging a small fee in order to turn a profit. It may sound like just a small business but it’s something that has employed a quarter of a million people in Bangladesh and turned Grameen Bank into a business that sees $1 billion of annual revenue. Moreover, those phones can then be used by other business people to better their own work situations in the country.
Who Supplies the Third World with Mobile Phones?
So which businesses are cornering the market on sending cell phones to developing countries? Most of them. It is, after all, where the largest number of potential new customers is located. Here’s a closer look at some of the major players in the third world mobile phone market:
– Vodafone. This company has a third world mobile phone banking program called M-Pesa with over one and a half million subscribers. In the Congo, they operate a system called Vodafone Congo which is jointly owned by a South African business, bringing financial profits to both the investing company and the developing company.
– Motorola. This handset maker specializes in sending low cost ($40 or less) phones to third world countries. They’re succeeding in their efforts, shipping out more than 30,000 phones per day. They’ve also gained attention for some innovative ideas such as their bike-charger for phones which adds energy to the battery as these individuals pedal their bikes.
– Recellular. Many of the phones that are used in third world countries are recycled phones tossed out by American and European consumers (see the section on this green movement below). Recellular is an example of one of the companies that is helping to refurbish and resell used phones to third world consumers.
– Nokia. This handset maker is doing a lot of different things in the third world, including sending anthropological researchers to third world countries to investigate the best design features for the development of new third world mobile phones.
Jan Chipchase, Mobile Researcher
Mobile phone needs in the third world are different from those in developed countries. So how is a mobile phone manufacturer to know exactly what changes they need to make to the design and function of their equipment in order to meet the needs of this emerging market? As with any other industry, the mobile phone industry employs people to find out.
Jan Chipchase, an employee of globally-recognized handset-maker Nokia, is one such employee. Employed under the titles “user anthropologist” and “human-behavior researcher”, Chipchase has spent the past seven years traveling around the globe to gain a better understanding of the third world mobile phone market for Nokia’s development team. His globe-trotting keeps him busy but his job mostly just involves spending a lot of time with people to try to determine what their ideal phone would be. Through interviews and observation, he gleans some insight into the purpose of the mobile phone in the lives of different types of people around the world.
In essence, Chipchase and the others like him who are employed by the mobile industry serve in the role of the reverse salesman. The salesman would take a set of products to the third world market and ask them to purchase those products. The reverse salesman goes to the market, determines what it needs and brings that information to the people who make the products. In the end, this means more mobile phone sales for the third world because the phones are specifically user-designed to meet their needs.
The Value of Third World Text Messaging
One of the pieces of information that has come from the research conducted by people like Chipchase is that SMS messaging is considered to be a highly valuable tool throughout the third world. People in developing nations are using SMS messages to discuss taboo issues that they don’t feel comfortable (or safe) discussing aloud, such as issues related to HIV in Africa. Professionals in the health care field also frequently make use of SMS messages; for example, they may send regular text message alerts to their patients to remind them to take important medications.
Another area of the developing world that has been heavily influenced by the availability of text messaging is politics. Political elections have been enhanced by the availability of text messaging in areas where individuals wouldn’t otherwise be able to make it to the polls to cast their vote. Additionally, there have been instances (such as in Ghana and Kenya) where political elections were said to be kept more honest as a result of SMS message monitoring. At the other end of the political spectrum, we have seen the ability of activist groups in places like South Korea and the Philippines to mobilize and spread information using SMS messaging. This ultimately enhances the quality of life for the individuals living in these nations.
Text messages are also being used as part of the business of cell phones themselves in third world countries. This is seen when SMS messages are used to transfer either money or minutes. An individual may send a message to the company that indicates that fifteen minutes of phone time should be transferred to his mother, for example, so that she is able to call him in the case of an emergency. Alternatively, it may be sent to the bank to initiate a business transaction.
Third World Mobiles and the Green Movement
The trend for bringing mobile technology to third world countries obviously has benefits for those countries. However, it also has benefits that extend to the rest of the world as well. We really are a global society now and it’s important for us to recognize our interconnectedness. One way that we see that in the mobile phone industry is that a number of the handsets that are used by people in the third world are recycled from the first world. Phones that people in America don’t want anymore can be repurposed and turned into a useful tool for the third world consumer. They get a good phone at an affordable price and the first world doesn’t have to figure out what to do with all that e-waste.
In addition to reducing e-waste, the unique situation of mobile phone use in the third world has challenged product creators to come up with eco-friendly designs. This is primarily linked to the fact that there simply isn’t enough access to good electricity in a lot of these places to constantly be recharging a cell phone. Businesses are working on making longer-lasting, energy-saving batteries for these third world consumers. They’re also working on creating gadgets such as the solar-powered battery chargers. Although these products are being built for the purpose of mobile phone efficiency, they’re ultimately contributing towards greener mobile phone design.
The move towards creating a mobile third world is pushing forward with great success. However, there still remain some barriers to the development of this industry. The biggest of these barriers is that there continue to be strict regulations on mobile phones in many of these countries. Often, these products are taxed heavily by the local government which then makes it more difficult for third world consumers to afford to invest in the new technology.
Another problematic area of development is that of VoIP technology. As Internet access and mobile technology both start to become more accessible in third world countries, VoIP providers are trying to make their way into the market. This low-cost method of making international calls could be useful to people in these countries but is currently being blocked by VoIP bans in many areas. These bans are in place to protect the revenue going to phone companies.
Infrastructure that Makes Sense
One of the things that is funneling the wireless phone movement in third world countries is the pure and simple fact that they need phones there. Many of the places where mobile phones are being used today are places that do not have any sort of landline phone system in place. It is far more economical to build the infrastructure for mobile phone technology than to start building out landlines across these nations. In fact, some have argued that third world countries are actually poised to be more innovative than first world countries in their approach to wireless technology due precisely to the fact that they are skipping straight over the time-consuming step of building out landlines. (This is called the leapfrog effect).
One area that we can see this happening in is with WiMax, a relatively new wireless technology used primarily for the development and deployment of mobile broadband. First world markets, such as the United States, are having a difficult time implementing this new technology. Third world markets are in a position to take advantage of new advances such as this. It will be interesting to see how this technological development plays out over the next few years.