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Jon with his dear friend Jacob. Note Jacob wears his cell phone on a cord around his neck.

The New York Times magazine has a fascinating piece on the spread of cell phone technology throughout the world. I, of course, was most interested in its focus on sub-Saharan Africa.  It’s a story that has been told over and over in recent months: mobile phone use has spread rapidly throughout Africa and there are a thousand different ways that mobile phones can be used as a tool for development.

This article tells the story from the perspective of a guy with basically the most interesting job ever: traveling the world to observe how people use their cell phones and talking with them about design.  One of the things I really liked about this article was that it went beyond describing possible development projects based on mobile phone technology to highlighting the fundamental ways that cell phones change the way people live, which in turn impacts development.  For instance, the concept of “just in time,” which is the ability to make decisions with little advance planning.  A great quote:

Something that’s mostly a convenience booster for those of us with a full complement of technology at our disposal — land-lines, Internet connections, TVs, cars — can be a life-saver to someone with fewer ways to access information. A “just in time” moment afforded by a cellphone looks a lot different to a mother in Uganda who needs to carry a child with malaria three hours to visit the nearest doctor but who would like to know first whether that doctor is even in town. It looks different, too, to the rural Ugandan doctor who, faced with an emergency, is able to request information via text message from a hospital in Kampala.

And of course, I loved this article for the descriptions of cell phone use in Africa I have come to know so well.  Sending money via text message (our friend Hellen would do this all the time). Cell phone entrepreneurs (kiosks are everywhere, selling time on a phone or selling an hour to charge the phone).  Small businesses transformed by immediate access to information, or immediate contact with their customers (we would call up our boda boda driver, John, all the time to see if he was available to drive us.  And we’d ask him to bring along however many bodas we needed to move whoever we were with).

Cell phones have become a mainstream part of the culture in a way other technologies haven’t yet, at least in Uganda.  Don’t let anybody fool you into believing that mobile phone technology will one day, in the future, encourage development in sub-Saharan Africa.  It already is.

Last week Lauren and I met with Sam and Tesh, two Silicon Valley tech experts of Ethiopian descent who are starting up an exciting business called 4afri. Basically, 4Afri aims to use the cell phone as a mechanism to deliver empowering information to Africans living in rural and/or low-income settings. According to Sam and Tesh, “the cell phone is the computer of the poor…we want to use it to democratize access to information.” On our travels around Uganda, Lauren and I have certainly found this to be true. One is hard pressed to find a village, even in the most remote areas, where cell service isn’t available and a cell phone isn’t ringing.

So, if Sam and Tesh have their way, people here will soon be able to use their cell phone to receive text messages with information that they would otherwise have to pay for, go online to find, or by chance get through word-of-mouth. Imagine, rural farmers could get real-time weather reports, commodity pricing indexes, and advice on organic farming methods. Expecting mothers could get important information on how to stay healthy before, during, and after a pregnancy. For that matter, nurses could get basic information on how to diagnose and treat diseases.

Their just getting started, but I can already tell this idea’s got legs…


Welcome to our blog! Follow along with us as we travel and experience life as a couple of 20-somethings - with all its ups and downs. We hope to post photos, short videos, stories about our daily life and not-so-daily adventures, and thoughts on what’s going on in the world.

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