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When a number matters March 9th, 2014 by

In the past decade poor people in developing countries have created a communications revolution just by buying mobile phones. As Jeff and I arrived in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, we stopped along the road to buy airtime. There is no shortage of mobile vendors in cities. They all sell scratch cards with phone credit from different phone companies. I asked for the largest denomination, which was 1000 Malawi Kwacha (5 Euro). The smallest amount sold was 50 Kwacha (8 Euro cents). “Isn’t it amazing how mobile companies have learned to cater for people who have little money,” Jeff remarked. “And that they can print and distribute these cards and still make a profit.”

In villages, mobile phones have created new opportunities for farmers to stay in touch with the family, to get information on market prices, or to transfer money more easily and more quickly with lower risks.

As yellow pages are rare in most developing countries, local entrepreneurs use sign boards in their own creative ways to communicate their services and phone numbers to potential clients (whether it’s land for sale in Bangladesh or a vegetable-growing cooperative in Honduras).

But mobile phones are just a tool; they are no substitute for social networks. Togolese women (called “Mama Benz,” after their big cars) in the business of trading colourful African prints, have been successful because of their well-established networks of suppliers and buyers. Mobile phones simply helped them to communicate with their existing network more efficiently and to increase their profits. Mobile phones did not help newcomers wanting to venture into the textile trade simply because they did not have any contacts to ring up.

In most villages, farmers rarely get to see an extension agent. Rural people need to be able to call someone to get advice on a new crop or a plant health problem. While yellow pages are hard to find in cities, in villages it is even hard to find a piece paper. Walls of houses, and even plants are used to store mobile numbers.

We encourage extensionists to put their phone number on the fact sheets they write, and to make sure the farmers have their number. Because you never know when a number will matter.

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