This interesting story in the New York Times describes how cell phones are being used in rural Uganda to track banana diseases.
Africa has more mobile phones than it does land lines. This is very believable to me, as I saw for myself the proliferation of cell phones in Dakar, Senegal, in 2005. In urban Dakar, the primary draw of the cell phone seemed to be the cool factor, and the ability to talk to friends any time or place. (Senegalese youth really aren't that different from American teenagers, afterall.) At times it seemed bizarre however, to see people talking on cell phones who couldn't afford cars, school, medical care, or even -- in extreme cases -- sufficient food for their children.
It is easy to jump to the conclusion that when people without electricity or clean water carry cell phones, this is a serious lack of spending priorities. An article about cell phone use among Washington DC's homeless prompted some similar sentiments among reader comments.
However, both of these articles illustrate how cell phones can be a key tool for bringing real improvements to people's lives. The same wealthy Americans who view cell phones as luxuries have access to fast transportation, land lines, television, prolific bank branches, disposable cameras, iPods, and computers with internet. For the poor, both in the United States and in Africa, cell phones have the potential to give people access to news and other information, connect them to friends and relatives who live several days' walk away, allow them use modern banking, and let them enjoy music and entertainment that wealthy Americans take for granted. The newest generation of cell phones have most of the same basic functions as laptops, but cost much less, which could make them valuable in education. Cell phones can be tools at work too. In Dakar, I occasionally saw workers using cell phones to coordinate with their employers and fellow employees, to make the business more productive. Cell phones present a great opportunity to help a large number of low-income people in both developed and developing economies. Programs like the one mentioned in the NYT article, that teach people how to make the best use of cell phones' powerful capabilities, are right on target.
I have worked in economic policy and research in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. My husband and I recently moved to Guyana, where I am working for the Ministry of Finance. I like riding motorcycle, outdoor sports, foreign currencies, capybaras, and having opinions.