Upwardly Mobile In Africa

… Precious little would seem to connect the Kenyan village of Muruguru to the 21st century. The red dirt roads become impassable in the rainy season. Only a few homes have electricity, indoor plumbing, or even a floor other than earth packed by bare feet. The villagers survive on corn, potatoes, and bananas they raise in hand-tilled fields, and earn a little extra cash by cultivating coffee beans that they dry outdoors on burlap sacks.

These days, just about every tradesman, shopkeeper, and farmer in town has a phone — or at least access to one. “Customers give my number to other customers. The business has grown,” says Susan Wairimu, whose tailor shop sits in the row of one-story buildings that constitute the village center. And Willson Maragua’s transport business in Muruguru, which consists of him and a used pickup truck, could hardly function without mobile technology. Local farmers, members of the Kikuyu tribe prevalent in the area, summon him to haul their coffee beans to a growers’ cooperative in a nearby valley. Now Maragua, an ebullient man wearing a baseball cap that says “Bachelorette Party,” lives in a home with a concrete floor and a solar panel on the roof to power a radio and a lightbulb — and recharge his family’s two handsets. With a mobile phone, he says over a lunch of corn, potatoes, and stewed goat, “You can manage your business.”

HIGHER LIVING STANDARDS

Only a few years ago, places like Muruguru didn’t even register in the plans of handset makers and service providers. What would a Kenyan farmer want with a mobile phone? Plenty, as it turns out. To the astonishment of the industry, people living on a few dollars a day have proven avid phone users, and in many parts of the world cellular airtime has become a de facto currency. The reason is simple: A mobile phone can dramatically improve living standards by saving wasted trips, providing information about crop prices, summoning medical help, and even serving as a conduit to banking services. “The cell phone is the single most transformative technology for development,” says Columbia University economist and emerging markets expert Jeffrey Sachs.
http://businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_39/b4051054.htm

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