Monday, December 15, 2008

Innovative Cellphone Use

Speaking of cellphones, I’ve been reading some interesting stuff about them and their uses in developing countries. A number of years back, cellphones were being used by village widows in India as a means of making a living when most other doors for income were closed to them. These ladies functioned as the local phone booth for their villages, charging fellow villagers a fee to call family and friends. In places where there were no other phones of any kind, this was a welcome service.

Then there are the Indian fishermen who use their cellphones to call different ports while still out at sea in order to get the best price for their catch. Prior to this, they simply made for the closest port and were obliged to take whatever price they were offered by the buyers. Knowing the effort involved in going to another port and that the quality of the fish would deteriorate with the time it took to get there, the buyers literally had the fishermen over a barrel and took advantage of this to negotiate rock bottom prices for their hard-earned catch. But the cellphone has now shifted power from the buyer to the seller, enabling him to negotiate and sell to the buyer willing to pay the highest price for their hard work.

Now Safaricom Kenya, a cellphone operator, has introduced a mobile-payment service. It allows subscribers to deposit and withdraw money via Safaricom’s airtime sales agents and send funds to each other by text message. Here in Burkina, we can send airtime top-up funds to each other, but little else. Safaricom’s service enables you to pay people for services rendered (provided they also have a cellphone, of course). Thus you can pay wages to a casual labourer or employee, taxi drivers can receive payment without having to carry around cash, money can be sent to family & friends in emergencies, and so on. Wow, now that’s cool! Vodafone, Safaricom’s parent company, has also launched this program in Tanzania and Afghanistan, and plans to introduce it in India too. Evidently, they forgot to mention Burkina Faso, but I’m sure it’s just a temporary oversight :)

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