Derek Newberry

NYT Magazine Asks: Can Cellphones Alleviate Poverty?

NYT picAll of us at were both humbled and thrilled to see the New York Times Sunday Magazine draw on our work – and the work of many colleagues – to write an extended piece on the impact of cell phone usage in emerging economies.

Sara Corbett’s article follows Nokia researcher Jan Chipchase as he navigates the human terrain of countries like Ghana, Brazil and Uzbekistan, trying to figure out why a farmer in Kenya or a prostitute in Brazil is finding unique value in their cell phone. The article uses Jan’s experience as a device for sparking a broader discussion on the potential for the booming cell phone market to increase incomes and quality of life among the BoP.What was most interesting about the piece is that the author poses her central theme as a question, not an assertion: “Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?” In her narrative, while laying out the case that cell phones increase productivity, she does not present this technology as a silver bullet development solution.

Rather, we get a very rich, on-the-ground account of how technology is changing people’s lives in BoP markets everywhere. Importantly, we see that the BoP are not a homogenous consumer group – a housekeeper in China might use her phone to increase her clientele while a South African health worker can quickly send medication information to a patient miles away.

Usage patterns vary enormously, but qualitative evidence very clearly confirms what we had discovered in The Next Four Billion: Market Size and Business Strategy at the Base of the Pyramid: that even the poorest of the poor are spending their hard-earned income on cell phones and other information technology. As Al Hammond comments in the article: “What people are voting for with their pocketbooks, as soon as they have more money and even before their basic needs are met, is telecommunications.”

The potential for scale is enormous as Al has seen through his work in Vietnam. WRI is partnering with the government to launch a pilot project that expands access to communications infrastructure throughout the country. This competitive growth is also causing new technologies to flourish that improve the functionality and quality of cell phone services, such as the security features we describe in our recent paper on mobile banking.

Overall, the article is a very visceral and engaging eye-opener to the variety of uses for the cell phone at the base of the pyramid. Congrats to the New York Times and Corbett for taking on this complex subject.