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Can the Newest Technology Liberate the Poorest Communities?

In Haiti, new technology bypasses many development pitfalls

In poor countries, development can stall in one of many stages of upgrading older systems. But when Haiti adopted the cell phone over landlines, there were no stages, and the country has never looked back:

While the penetration of land lines remains at just 2 percent countrywide, cellular penetration has increased from zero to 29 percent in less than 10 years, according to government figures. The industry represents the largest investment in Haiti in decades…

The cellular expansion has sprouted related businesses. In Haiti, enterprising Haitians have realized they can make a living charging others to use their cell phones, and have set up shops along the streets. (October 15, 2007)

Jacqueline Charles, “Cell Phones Driving a Social Revolution in Haiti and Caribbean” at GovTech

In this Mind Matters podcast, engineering professor Brian Thomas discusses his work with microbusinesses in Haiti, using solar power to charge cell phones.

The massive earthquake on January 12, 2010, knocked out the network temporarily. But the crisis highlighted the fact that, as Haitian engineer Charles-Edouard Denis explained, Haitians customarily have several cell phones:

Most people in Haiti have two or three cellular phones, and they only pay as they go. If they don’t have money, they can keep their service [receive calls] and replenish when they can afford it. This is also good for the phone companies because it allows them to terminate international calls to these customers…

Before Digicel came in 2006, cellphones cost US$300 or $400, but those who could not afford the phones often received used phones from their relatives in the United States or Europe and so were able to have multiple phones. Now phones cost about $20, but service is 3 to 5 gourdes per minute (exchange rate now is 40 gourdes for $1). Digicel and Comcel have done a great job of creating access virtually everywhere in Haiti. Phone service is a tool used even by the shoeshine kids on the street of the capital, even the peasant collecting cocoa beans in faraway lands…

Anne-Marie Corley, “Why Haiti’s Cellphone Networks Failed” at IEEE Spectrum

The phones helped save lives. From a report during the aftermath:

Twelve days after the earthquake, Port-au-Prince has no power grid and no landlines. Despite the devastation to infrastructure from Haiti’s January 12 earthquake, cell phones are emerging as a lifeline for many survivors.

Haiti’s cell phone networks have been quick to recover, even as other infrastructure remains crippled.

A straw poll of a group of 15 young men in Lepine on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince showed that 14 of them owned cell phones – and nearly all said they relied on them for news and information rather than radio.

Tim Large, “Cell phones and radios help save lives after Haiti earthquake” at Reuters Foundation

In 2011, roughly 10% of Haitians had bank accounts. But by 2013, mobile digital banking via cell phones was starting to stand in for bricks-and-mortar banks:

“The fact that a mobile wallet was launched at all in Haiti is a huge success,” says Steve Olive, deputy director of USAID’s Port-au-Prince office, who helped jumpstart the initiative along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “It’s making financial products available to people who were previously outside the banking system.”

Domestic money transfers, payroll, and basic banking services were first to go live. It immediately became apparent that giving Haitians the ability to instantly transfer money from one mobile phone to another — anywhere in the country without a banking intermediary — was a killer app. Whereas before, people had to endure long bank lines and pay for expensive wire transfers to send cash from the city to family or a friend in the country, Haitians could now remit up to $25 with a few simple text commands for just 15 cents.

Erik Heinrich, ” Haiti’s mobile redemption” at Fortune

Today, cellular communications are considered a way forward for Haiti, as for many developing countries. Many microbusinesses, such as those for which Brian Thomas has acted as a consultant engineer, are helping to point the way.

See also: The Hills Go High Tech: An American community finds its way in the new digital economy

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Can the Newest Technology Liberate the Poorest Communities?