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Cellphones Leapfrog Poor Infrastructure in Mali 102

Posted by Zonk
from the twenty-first-century-meets-the-seventeenth dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "CBC News has up an article by Peace Corps volunteer Heidi Vogt, a woman who served in the small village of Gono in Mali five years ago and remembers letters dictated and hand-carried by donkey cart or bicycle to the next town. Vogt recently returned to see the changes that cellphone communications have made in a village that still doesn't have electricity or decent drinking water. 'Gono's elders say the phones can keep them in touch with their village diaspora,' writes Vogt. 'Villagers depend on far-off relatives to send money in time of crisis — if someone is sick, if a house has caught fire, if there's been too little or too much rain and the harvest is poor. There's a new sense of connection to a larger world. In a village where most people can't read or write, they can now communicate directly with far-off relatives.'"
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Cellphones Leapfrog Poor Infrastructure in Mali

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  • Use your online minutes wisely!
  • Nice article. Positives and negatives, with the mum worried by her sons who do not call.

    The effect of cell phones is to allow a village to remain much the same village, despite the children dispersing. Over time, the kids will marry away, but the blow gets softened, and the children are stabilized by contact with home.

    So it is a good thing over all. The interesting bit is: who pays for the village phones. Just the children. When you think that this is a force for stability, and how cheap phones are compared
    • by TubeSteak (669689) on Saturday February 02, 2008 @07:34PM (#22277158) Journal
      I actually don't think it's such a "nice" article, as it does very little to paint a bigger picture, except for this one paragraph:

      The cellphone tower that services Gono wasn't built for the village. It was built in 2005 for the 25,000-person town of Douentza, 16 kilometres away, where there are people who work in offices and receive monthly salaries. Gono was just the lucky recipient of some of Douentza's spare coverage.
      About 25% of Mali's population lives in 25 cities
      Doutenze (at 25,000 people) ranks in Mali's top 20 cities
      Mali is one of the 3rd poorest country in the world according to the UN*
      The median age is 16

      Here are the coverage maps for Mali:
      http://www.gsmworld.com/cgi-bin/ni_map.pl?cc=ml&net=ik [gsmworld.com]
      http://www.gsmworld.com/cgi-bin/ni_map.pl?cc=ml&net=mt [gsmworld.com]

      Notice how little of the country is covered? This "news" is just a human interest story, a fluff piece designed to give you the warm fuzzies. That small village is not representative of Mali as a whole and anyone trying to extrapolate anything from such an example is making a mistake.

      *2006 Human Development Index
  • Preemption (Score:5, Insightful)

    by clarkkent09 (1104833) on Saturday February 02, 2008 @05:59PM (#22276386)
    Ok, if you are going to be the first person to post "what do they need cellphones/computers/internet for, give them food instead" type of post in this thread, I have something to say to you. You are an idiot. Please try to understand that you are an idiot and shouldn't be posting your idiotic opinions on slashdot or anywhere else. Instead, try to improve yourself somehow, take some classes or whatever. It won't help, but at least it will keep you busy.
    • by athdemo (1153305)
      Yeah, they couldn't order pizza without the phones, I guess.
      • by Heembo (916647)
        Well, at least they will not get hot pizza delivery in 30 minutes or less. Travel by donkey is rather slow.
    • by jlarocco (851450)

      Do you have any arguments other than "People who think that are idiots"?

      • Re:Preemption (Score:5, Interesting)

        by LehiNephi (695428) on Saturday February 02, 2008 @06:47PM (#22276782) Journal
        GP may not, but I can. I spent about half of last year in Chad for work. The situation there is similar to that described in the article--lots of people have cell phones, but nobody has electricity, running water, or sanitation systems. Nobody forced these people to get cell phones first. These people decided to spend their own hard-earned money in this manner. At some point in the future, I'm sure they'll get running water and electricity, but for now, this is what they've decided to do with their money.

        It's capitalism at its finest--let the people decide for themselves what is most deserving of their money.
        • by Klinky (636952)
          I don't think it's fair to put the blame on the individuals necessarily. While it's true that the money could possibly be better spent building infrastructure, you also have to admit that infrastructure is not an easy or cheap thing to build. How much does it cost for a month of airtime on a cell phone vs wiring a whole city with electricity or building an functional sewage, sanitation & drinking system. The fact is, it would take much much more money and many more people working together to make it hap
        • There is not a lack of food in the world. People starve because they are *poor*. The best way to prevent starvation is to help them to be *not poor*. Ready communications is extraordinarily useful in trying to climb out of poverty; a farmer who knows what crops bring what prices in which markets knows what to raise and where to sell it--but he can't spend the days it would take to go to those markets to father those prices. Give him a way to know those prices in a few moments and he's taken a big step u
          • Re:Preemption (Score:4, Interesting)

            by Neuticle (255200) on Sunday February 03, 2008 @04:21AM (#22280522) Homepage
            I have personally seen this in action. A few villages over from where I was living in Africa there was a fertile patch of land that was a tomato producing machine, and I mean buckets-and-bushels -piled-high-year-round kind of production. One guy with no other job (like most) figured out that he could make money transporting tomatoes if he bought cheap at the source and sold them in town at the going rate. The bulk rate fluctuated at either end, and it was only worth his time when the prices were right, but that is where the cell phone came in (motorized transport costs would have eaten any profit and it was a grueling bike-ride/push).

            Even though he didn't do it more than a few times, I was impressed with the idea.

            And I still have no idea how they grew so many bloody tomatoes in that place. It was insane
        • If I have a few dollars a month I can buy a cell phone. And the infrastructure (cell tower) will be built as a commercial FOR PROFIT facility. And I get an immediate payoff - instant communication, prestige of having a cell phone, perhaps even the ability to sell calls. IF I have a few dollars a month and I want electricity or running water, well, Either I need some big bucks up front or a spend them as taxes to get the infrastructure built. In most cases electricity and water are perceived as public uti
    • Ok, if you are going to be the first person to post "what do they need cellphones/computers/internet for, give them food instead" type of post in this thread, I have something to say to you. You are an idiot. Please try to understand that you are an idiot and shouldn't be posting your idiotic opinions on slashdot or anywhere else. Instead, try to improve yourself somehow, take some classes or whatever.
      Would you recommend they take cooking classes?
       
    • Let me also pre-emptively respond to those who think that because they have cellphones they are now contributing to global warming. By not having to travel to see their children or far off relatives in order to have a conversation they are reducing their carbon footprint massively.
    • Fully agreed. People don't understand that one thing doesn't exclude the other. Just because they're given technology it doesn't mean that they won't have food. Believe it or not, people in other parts of the world also want things other than food. Everyone outside of the G8 aren't starving either.

      Furthermore, the role of technology is misunderstood by people who say these things. Technology might not directly feed your family but it is a force multiplier and a time saver. There is a reason why most o
    • Why not solve both problems at once and send them bananaphones? I mean, the bananaphone is just perfect fot those regions. It's the best, beats the rest... Cellular, modular, interactive-odular - you name it, it is it. It'd take some financial strain off them, as well, because they won't need quarters, won't need dimes to call a friend of them. If the people in those regions had bananaphones, they'd call for pizza, they'd call their cat; they'd call the White House, have a chat. It would be commonplace to e
  • by Anonymous Coward
    "what do they need cellphones/computers/internet for, give them food instead"
    It is obvious that in the major insurgancies in the region are going to keep blowing up the infrastructure as their power and territory waxes and wanes vs govt troop deployments so perhaps in this case, it may be appropriate to say this. Although previous slashdotters (read techno-centric people) would argue otherwise, the main factions of the Mba'Lo region do not want any of this, they simply want control and they are willing to
  • Wrong Solutions? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by WhiteWolf666 (145211)
    I hate to be a first-world asshole, but why would be happy that a third world village is dependent upon its diaspora? Why is this an acceptable state of affairs? Doesn't it bother anyone that these means of communication aren't really sparking commerce?

    Instead of sending them food, cellphones, water, or weapons, why not send them some capitalism? Microloans, an active press to fight corruption, and education in systems of law and governance?

    Decades of assistance to the third world, and all manner of sociali
    • by bluemonq (812827)
      Out of curiosity... have you visited Mali yet?
      • by WhiteWolf666 (145211) <sherwin&amiran,us> on Saturday February 02, 2008 @06:53PM (#22276840) Homepage Journal
        No, but that's mainly because I've got a limited budget, and existing business interests in other places in northern and western africa, eastern europe, and latin america.

        I've a feeling I've seen similar villages to the one discussed in the article, though.

        I've said it before, and I'll say it again. One of the biggest shocks to me in my life was when I visited a small village in Ethiopia dominated by a former communal farm. One of the middle level farm workers asked me, in English, why the U.S. maintained such high subsidies on cotton and rice; why wouldn't the U.S., master of free trade, import Ethiopian cotton and rice?

        They didn't want aid; they didn't want "education". They wanted to know why we refused to buy their products, even though their products were produced more cheaply than ours.

        How do you answer that? Coming from someone who makes less in a month than I might spend in a night.

        Maybe it is just me, but there is only one answer; abject shame, apologies, and a decision to try one's hardest to pursue business in the forgotten realms of this planet.
        • by Grym (725290) *

          One of the middle level farm workers asked me, in English, why the U.S. maintained such high subsidies on cotton and rice; why wouldn't the U.S., master of free trade, import Ethiopian cotton and rice?...They wanted to know why we refused to buy their products, even though their products were produced more cheaply than ours. How do you answer that? Coming from someone who makes less in a month than I might spend in a night.

          The answer is rather simple. Being a sovereign nation, the United States isn't ob

          • No, the real reason is that you* are a bunch of economic illiterates who don't know the difference between Montalban and David.

            (*) Like most everyone else.
        • by BeanThere (28381)
          Subsidies are indeed a huge problem for African farmers. Over the years, I've only found one argument in favour thereof that made me stop and go, hmm, yes, that makes sense, and that was that of food security. It will always (or at least, for the time being) be cheaper to grow food in places like Africa and import it into the US; if global free market forces were allowed to do their thing, it would essentially rout the US agricultural industry; the US would become a full services and manufacturing based eco
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by philpalm (952191)
      I'm in favor of microloans but you need infrastructure to distribute such loans. If the diaspora keeps sending money and returns to their villages there will be signs of progress.

      Cell phones and communication with the diaspora will help in the future, look at Armenia and the Philippines where their diaspora are a big help to their economies.

      Then again the deportation of American rejects to El Salvador (MS-13) was not a good idea either...
    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Decades of assistance to the third world, and all manner of socialist leaders ready to aid and reform have done little except generate more poverty. Perhaps, instead of giving to the third world, we should start taking; in the form of purchasing agricultural goods, in ecotourism, and other friendly means to transfer money to these areas while simultaneously encouraging (and rewarding!!) hardwork?

      I agree with your sentiment, but I'm surprised to see it on /.. Usually sourcing goods or services from the third world sparks complaints about outsourcing & offshoring. Think of all the good that has happened in India and other countries due to purchasing services from them, yet people here would rather bitch that it reduces their job opportunities. It seems competition is considered a good thing when you're the little guy throwing rocks at the tower but not when you're at the top looking down...

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by WhiteWolf666 (145211)
        BIngo!

        That's why whenever I see protectionist liberals, I call them selfish bastards. Globalization is the *most* efficient tool of wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor, worldwide. Just look at the Western (EU + US) trade imbalance with the Asian tigers & India.

        Vastly more wealth has been transferred from the hands of the rich to the poor due to the last 15 years of globalization than the 50 years of Foreign Aid offered by the West AND the USSR.

        Socialism (especially International Socialism) a
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by servognome (738846)

          Globalization is the *most* efficient tool of wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor, worldwide.
          The problem is perception. Those who call themselves middle class in the US or Europe don't realize they are amongst the rich when looked at in global terms.
          • It's not just the middle class, really. Show me a guy who's living on an unemployment benefit in Germany, and I'll show you a man who's insanely rich by the standards of, say, Niger.
        • That's why whenever I see protectionist liberals, I call them selfish bastards.
          A wonderful example of the corruption of political terminology in the US.

          Liberals are by definition not protectionist.

          By the way, Socialists are not liberals.

          And International socialists are not protectionist.
    • The problem is that "poverty" is relative. Would you consider Amish poor... without Cellphones, TV, Radio, etc, even though they own large amounts of land and animals, and bountiful crops? It's the DISPARITY that's the problem, not lack of possessions. We see natives as "kids" on a camping trip gone bad. They LIVED in a stable society of hunting/gathering/farming then somebody with a truck full of food (plus machines, money, clothes, radios, technology, guns, etc) enters the picture and trades the "wonder
      • I dunno about that.

        I think life in the third world is similar to life in medieval societies; brutal, cruel, and short. Hunter/gatherer societies go through boom/bust periods of feast and famine, not to mention the ravages of indigenous diseases. Beyond that, I don't subscribe to pure cultural relativism. I believe all humans are created equal, I believe men are socially equal to women, and I don't believe in human sacrifice.

        If one comes across a society that routinely kills 1 in 4 of its female children, ho
        • The issue is not the technology... it's telling them how to THINK... Silly as it may seem to us, a tribe may want to keep it's elders, it's traditions in spite of people brining technology. I grew up in Church around a lot of missionaries. Nobody ASKS the people what they want when they put them on TV as "starving" and push the Bible on them... they TELL the people where they will be made to fit in society, and it's usually the bottom of the heap as fresh bodies for the "machine".

          What we're saying is that
  • Similar experience (Score:5, Informative)

    by Manywele (679470) on Saturday February 02, 2008 @07:46PM (#22277276)
    I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural part of Tanzania from 1999-2002 and I went back to visit this last summer. When I arrived in 1999 there was one cell network in the country. It was in the (then) capital and most populous city of 2 million people, it had a capacity of 50,000 and was maxed out. A couple of competing companies starting setting up towers and by the time I left they had covered the major cities and arteries of the entire country. When I went back this last July the companies had moved out into the villages and most people in the country had local cell coverage. The area where I had lived was very hilly and somewhat remote so I thought that they would never get coverage out there but they had it.
    You don't buy a plan like in the US, you buy a phone ($30 for a cheap model) and then you buy minutes (leading to some of the shortest phone conversations I have ever heard). People who live in areas without electricity find ways to charge them. Someone might buy a generator and set up a side business charging phones. Some people have to bike hours to the nearest town with electricity.
    The difference in how people communicate was astounding. Kids away studying could keep in contact with their families back in the villages. Kids who had met in school but lived in different places kept in touch (I reunited a number of my former students by passing cell phone numbers around). Farmers could keep in touch with people in the markets. It was an amazing change.
    • by Neuticle (255200)
      Jamani! Hata mimi, nilikaa Newala 05-07, nawe? Niliondoka kabla ya safari yako. Pole sana. Medivac, umeme, moyo, etc.

      Too much of the old Kiswahili will probably invoke the wrath of mods, but I'd bet we know a lot of the same people. This is too crazy. What sites did you visit when you were there?
      • by Manywele (679470)
        Aisee! Mambo vipi? Nilikaa karibu na Njombe, mbali kwako. Nilipokwenda nilisafiri miji mbali mbali kati ya Dar na Njombe.

        Yeah, pretty weird, but then it's no secret that there are plenty of geeks in Peace Corps.
    • by SeaFox (739806)

      People who live in areas without electricity find ways to charge them. Someone might buy a generator and set up a side business charging phones. Some people have to bike hours to the nearest town with electricity.

      Sounds like a golden opportunity for solar battery chargers.
      • by Manywele (679470)
        Absolutely. Right now the available ones are still much too expensive (a few times the cost of a phone). You get some unexpected problems when you try to find a place to charge a cell phone in the sun in rural Africa though. It has to be in a place where it won't be trampled by cows or goats, pecked at by chickens, used as a toy by wandering children or carried off by an opportunistic thief.
        • by SeaFox (739806)
          On the roof of a house would solve most of those issues, especially if it's got a small ledge around the edge to hide something on the roof from view at the ground level. As far as thievery, chargers need to be designed for that sort of issue. Right now, portability is the driving force behind design. But something in a more rugged enclosure with places to attach security chains, etc would work better. Kinda like an OLPC for solar chargers.
  • by Neuticle (255200) on Saturday February 02, 2008 @07:53PM (#22277362) Homepage
    but I lived in an African Village with no running water or electricity (90% of the time ) for 2 years. (Raise your hands RPCVs)

    I had 3 (count them, one two THREE!) cell phone towers within sight of my house, and I could always hear the diesel generators at night if the winds lulled.

    Would I have traded the cell phone for reliable electricity or running water?

    HELL NO.

    Cell phones improved my life and the life of the other people there tremendously. Electricity is about 1,000,000 times more expensive to cook with than charcoal, and kerosene lamps and candles make plenty of light. Water was scarce, but I had a no-flush pit toilet and an in ground rain-catch cistern for water. I only really used about 60l a week. The real problem was that not enough people had big enough cisterns (20% maybe), and many people had none. Water ran out in places at times, people suffered when they couldn't wash or bath as often, but no one ever died of dehydration for lack of a drink. If 60% of the houses had big cisterns, it would solve that problem.

    Life without electricity and running water can be just fine. What is really needed is healthcare.

    The hospital didn't have a single actual doctor after the foreign volunteer left. Pretty much everyone who walked in was told they had malaria and treated for it regardless. People suffered and died frequently from stupid, easily treated things. THAT was -IS- a tragedy.
    • So what they _really_ need is knowledge - that, btw is information which has been transferred from the transport medium into the brain - about how to look after their health. First they need to learn to read and write in whatever language they use. In this situation it would be a really worthwhile investment because texting is so much cheaper than talking.

      How to persuade the illiterate that it's worth while putting in the effort to learn how to read and write is another, and very difficult question to ans

  • In some of these villages a cellphone hosted by a local is the equivalent of an ATM. sibling in the city can pick up a long distance cell card call the local 'cell guy' and give him the code for more minutes. 'cell guy' in turn provides cash or material goods for the family of the caller after taking his fee. Just being able to send some income back to the village from a remote employment opportunity without traveling is a major boon indeed. Just another example of technology being used in ways that weren'

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