You Can’t Use a Cell Phone if You Can’t Read Numbers

Posted on January 31, 2011 by 3 Comments

Why do I get so bummed out when I can’t get a connection on either my phone or laptop?  Is this self-importance — everyone needs to hear from me now?  Is it anxiety that whatever I am thinking or experiencing at that moment will be LOST FOREVER to other people?  My Alaska Airlines flight to New York proclaimed in-flight Wi-Fi, which oddly made me jubilant getting on the plane, even with an earache. When it didn’t pan out after trying with three devices, I sort of got bummed out. Hey, I’m not the only one here: I remember a colleague of mine tweeting from another Alaska Airlines flight saying how thrilled she was to be tweeting from 35,000 feet.  By the way, did you know that Emirates lets you use your phone in the air, too?

There are times when connectivity truly betters lives although being connected on a plane may not be one.  I’ve just been in Ethiopia visiting @MercyCorps about projects I am involved in and spent a few days meeting with Tsigie Haile, the director of WISE, in Addis Ababa.  She talked of the differences cell phones have made for many of the women she is helping to start their own businesses marketing products from grains and spices to eucalyptus poles used for scaffolding and vegetables from small garden patches. 

Many people have written very well about the growing use of cell phones in impoverished countries: Nick Kristof on payment systems in Haiti, Bill Gates on application for healthcare, and I have seen it myself through my work with Mercy Corps.  This innovative and productive usage continues to multiply exponentially — the number of mobile subscriptions in the world passed 5 billion in 2010, with a 76 percent penetration rate globally, and the developing world has a disproportionate number, up from 53 percent of all subscriptions to 73 percent at the end of 2010 (according to the International Telecommunication Union).  There is real reason for us to be optimistic about the increase in social impact as well. 

One of the biggest obstacles in cell phone adoption is illiteracy.  If you can’t read the numbers, you can’t dial the phone.  And if you are using the phone for checking prices, you have to be able to read.  So for some of our programs in southern Ethiopia, we first must teach people to read. 

In addition to the livelihood and health aspects of this trend, there is an emerging social benefit for people of all ages who are now able to connect more.  Facebook is not at all prevalent yet in poor rural areas, as very few people have computers.  The computers they do have are old, and the Internet availability is not as ubiquitous. 

Last year when I was in Ethiopia, I spent time with Rebecca G. who at the time did not have Facebook, but six months ago she friended me.  I saw her again on this trip, and she told me that when she got Facebook it was the coolest thing in the world.  She made a list of people and started searching for them, including me.  She reads my Facebook for “news and knowledge” (her words) and she commented that she especially loves it when I link my tweets to Facebook (which I do about 10 percent of the time) because she gets news and ideas of what to read and follow.  We talked about what Facebook means to her.  It is a Big Deal — for instance, she has a friend who writes/sings beautiful music, and now it can be shared on Facebook.  (For the record, I very much enjoyed his music.)

I was visiting a school one woman had started with a loan from WISE.  I had been very impressed with the school on my last visit to Addis and wanted to see the school’s continued progress.  I wasn’t disappointed:  the school is flourishing, and there are now 140 students ages 3–12.  I saw many of the same children — their faces now a year older, but the smiles indelibly the same. They all had prepared songs for me, and then we talked about their favorite subjects — which, by the way, for the second graders is environmental science.

As I was leaving a young teacher walked out with me and said shyly, but with total certainty, “I’ll friend you on Facebook, and you’ll accept, right?”

She’s right; I will.

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3 Comments

Wendy Carhart on February 8, 2011

Melissa – really interesting story on this topic that I read today. The numbers and implications are truly fascinating!

http://www.globaldashboard.org/2011/02/07/what-if-you-have-a-mobile-phone-but-you-cant-read/

Ken Dielman on February 19, 2011

I have been a reader of your website for a good while. Keep up the amazing posting you are doing here.

抓猴 on June 9, 2011

There are tons of websites that simply make useless information,but yours are different , I am so happy to read your post,2

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