Can a Peace Corps Volunteer Learn Something from Nokia?
I saw this article in the New York Times today, about how Nokia is selling crop price information through cell phones. One particular bit stuck out at me:
Dattarey Bhonge, a 27-year-old onion farmer in Barshi, an Indian village 370 kilometers, or 230 miles, east of Mumbai, said he learned through Life Tools that he could earn more by selling his onions at a market in nearby Solapur. The additional profit allowed him to buy new farm equipment.
“I don’t have to go anywhere to find the prices,” he said in a video provided by Nokia. “The prices are reliable. I was cheated by my agent. Now he can’t cheat me.”
While the information is from a Nokia video and is certainly painting a best-case scenario, an important point is mentioned here–that prior to the farmer’s use of Nokia’s technology, his selling agent was able to rip him off.
And all it took to break this scam was a text message. There was an obvious need for this service, and kudos to Nokia if they were the first to provide it in this area (services like this are becoming more and more common). And while the barriers to providing a service like this go beyond offering an SMS service (literacy, irrigation, cell phone infrastructure, people actually having cell phones), it’s nice to see that there’s a company focusing on potential customers like this, since services like this play an important role in development. These are good customers to have. It is people like this farmer who have the skills and resources that could make them middle class–literacy, perhaps a small business, potential customers, the ability to use a cell phone. They only need some small barriers broken to open their earning potential. And their additional earnings are also good for the non-literate, non-phone owning people in their communities as well, since it adds more money into the local economy. Middle class citizens do not exist in isolation.
If a middle class is going to be created in the rural parts of the developing world, it will be through strengthening the links between the rural areas and the seats of wealth: the cities. And while those links are most typically someone who works in the city and sends money home or goes home on the weekends, there are other links that are possible. Rural America is relatively functional precisely because our rural areas are strongly linked to our cities. We have good roads, a strong freight network, a phone system, Internet usually, universities in every state, and relatively easy ways to get goods produced outside of cities into the cities themselves. It is these links that create a channel of money into the rural areas that in turn support many local jobs. Every farmer selling their crops in town, and every worker who works a shift at a factory create many local jobs. One only has to look at rural communities across America to see how the loss of a factory with only a few jobs can destroy a rural community, since that one factory was the link between that rural community and outside money.
In most of the world, these strong links between cities and rural areas do not exist.
And while a text message with crop information is not a road or an decent Internet connection or a factory, it’s a low cost way to link rural producers with urban consumers, eliminating the middleman that was keeping an exorbitant amount of the profits within the city limits. It just so happens that this particular innovation is of economic (and marketing) benefit to Nokia, but that doesn't change the fact that they're providing a great service. This is quite possibly capitalism working like it is supposed to.
As a Peace Corps education volunteer, much of the development that we promote is personal development of individuals in rural areas, and much of that development is in the form of creating individuals that are better equipped to navigate the job market–”better equipped” meaning anything from concrete knowledge (knowing computers, better skills in a school subject) to more personally fit (HIV negative, not a teen mother, not starving). Unfortunately, many times what we ultimately create are individuals who are able to leave their communities. And while they may very well return and open a business, most likely the only benefits they can offer their community are the esteem of knowing one of their neighbors is making it, and the money they send home.
What we maybe should focus on is helping rural areas figure out ways to use their resources to bring more prosperity directly into the community. I think this Nokia venture is an example of what development should be–it is not about changing people’s lives, spending lots of money, altering lifestyles, or imposing new ways. It identifies a need, and it offers a solution that fits the need perfectly. And that solution is something that the beneficiaries did not have the means to implement on their own (this is what makes it development instead of just regular problem solving).
The difficult question here is how we as Peace Corps volunteers can provide development solutions like this. It is certainly not an easy task, and it is made even more difficult when we are supposed to focus on education, which by its definition increases the capacity of individuals. Even prosperous rural areas have a drain of young people to the cities. And in an unprosperous rural area, most people with the means to leave will indeed leave, especially if they are young. Therefore, is it possible that by focusing primarily on strengthening education in rural areas we actually contribute to the further decline of these rural areas? Maybe that’s a post for the future. But I feel it is important to note that the South African government has not requested groups of Peace Corps volunteers with Business Development as a core focus–just volunteers focusing on “Schools and Communities” and HIV/AIDS.