"Mobile phones, markets and a development miracle"

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Connor Mendenhall
columnist

If one gadget epitomizes our pervasively connected modern lives, it's the cell phone. Mobile phones are everywhere, and all too often that little device in your pocket can be a huge annoyance. I've been hit more than once by multitasking bicyclists attempting to talk and pedal at the same time. The climax of many a movie has been ruined by the cruelly gleeful jingle of the ""Nokia tune."" And when I close my eyes at night, the grinning face of Chad from Alltel taunts me in my dreams. But few people realize that the tiny tools we know best as first-world annoyances have the potential to revolutionize the developing world.

Believe it or not, the fastest-growing mobile phone market in the world isn't in the wealthy U.S. or tech-savvy Asia. It's in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the last five years, cell phone usage has exploded throughout the developing world, growing at an astonishing 65 percent per year. In 1999, Kenya had 15,000 mobile phone users. Today, it has more than 5.5 million. That might not sound impressive to a nation where everyone and their grandmother owns a cell phone, but compare it with the number of Kenyans who have electricity ð- about 200,000.

Today, almost 60 percent of the 2.4 billion mobile phone users across the globe live in the developing world. This makes the cell phone a truly revolutionary device - the first gadget used more widely by the Third World than the first. For those in developing nations, the cell phone is more than a fun tool for chatting with friends or text-voting after American Idol; it's a vital source of information, a platform for entrepreneurship and an indispensable link to the digital world.

For the first time in history, many Africans now have access to modern telecommunications. Although landline service has existed in Africa for years, in most nations it is heavily regulated by the government, controlled by a central monopoly and in disrepair from years of neglect and underinvestment. But mobile phones and the power of the market have shaken up everything. Mobile companies have built a cheap, reliable communications network that remains unhindered by the interventionist government policies that have stifled so many promising technologies in the past. In fact, the African cell phone market is more competitive and advanced than our own - and Africans are rapidly reaping its rewards.

In Africa, cell phones have become integral information sources. Fishermen text the changing prices of each day's catch back and forth, and farmers can call ahead to find the best food prices before making the arduous daily trip to the marketplace, making commerce more efficient and bringing important goods where they are needed most. Even better, these phones have provided access to financial services and capital previously unknown to many. Kenyans can pay for cabs and check their bank balances on the tiny screens of their mobile phones. They can even take out loans and send money to others. Before long, the cell phone may replace cold, hard cash.

Phones also encourage

A device we take for granted every day is a more effective tool for global development than the celebrity-laden concerts and buckets of aid rich countries have tried for years.

homegrown businesses. Plumbers and handymen who once waited hours in the central square for a customer with a leaky pipe are now a mere phone call away. An active secondhand phone market has sprung up in many cities, where accessories and parts from recycled handsets are traded back and forth, and working mobile phones can be assembled from a smorgasbord of disassembled components. Phone cards and mobile minutes are informal currencies. And in many communities, enterprising cell phone owners lease their telephones to their neighbors, making a profit while giving others an opportunity for mobile access.

Most importantly, cell phones serve as a crucial bridge across the digital divide. We connect to the Internet from personal computers - the devices that revolutionized the wealthy world the way the cell phone is changing the poorest. The rest of the globe may leapfrog the PC altogether, jumping instead to mobile phone technology as a connection to the digital world.

And cell phones aren't just taking off in Africa. In China, an anonymous text message spurred a rally of thousands in June - an example of the democratic power of mobile phone technology. In Bangladesh, Grameen Bank - best known for winning a Nobel Prize for its microlending programs - pioneered Third World cell phone programs by spinning off a branch called Grameen Telecom.

A device we take for granted every day is a more effective tool for global development than the celebrity-laden concerts and buckets of aid rich countries have tried for years. Why? Mobile phones combine the versatility of information technology with the power of free markets. So next time your cell phone rings, remember that the little brick buzzing in your pocket is doing more than playing an embarrassing recording of ""My Humps"" in the middle of class - it's revolutionizing the world.

Connor Mendenhall is a sophomore majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.


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