The Cellphone and the Developing World: Grass Roots Innovation

This entry is part of my research project for the class of Networked Rhetoric at Stanford University. For more information, click here.

With the majority of people living in the developing world and the majority of cellphones residing there, the role cellphones will take in the developing world is becoming a hard to ignore topic. This is for a good reason as well. In developing countries, cellphones are being used to eliminate many unnecessary inefficiencies and barriers. My research deals with how people in the developing world are becoming empowered and are creating innovative solutions to their own problems through the equalizing power of the cellphone.


There are a lot of grassroots examples of people taking cellphones and expanding the its capabilities in ways that haven’t been thought of before. One such innovation is occurring in Uganda where people are using cellphone minutes as a form of currency. In Uganda, cellphones are being used to transfer minutes instead of money. Many Ugandans don’t have bank accounts which creates a problem when trying to transfer money.  Many Ugandans also can’t afford a monthly cellphone plan but this, however, is actually creating an opportunity. Instead of monthly plans, people rely on prepaid cards. In Uganda, these prepaid cards are as good as money. When a person needs to send money to someone in another village, they buy a prepaid card, call the local cellphone kiosk operator of the person’s village and read the card’s number to them. The kiosk operator will then hand money to the desired person, take a small commission, and use the minutes from the card to offer cellphone services to others in the village. Without cellphones, these people would have otherwise had to undergo a long and possibly risky journey to make the delivery. What makes this so interesting is that innovation like this is not being motivated by big corporations or nongovernment organizations but by the people themselves. People are molding the cellphone to fit their culture, their society, and their needs.

Charles Naut, Stanford University

This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Cellphone and the Developing World: Grass Roots Innovation

  1. Steven Xie says:

    Hey Charles, this is Steven from the University of Texas. Your issue sounds really interesting. One topic you could further investigate is the relationship between these people and the corporations and NGOs. You state that “innovation like this is not being motivated by big corporations or nongovernment organizations but by the people themselves”, but I think these factors have influenced third-world use of cellphones and are important to articulate. I’m excited to see what relationships you discover between peoples’ use of cellphones and their societies and cultures.

  2. ccrvisitor says:

    I think you have a really good foundation for your topic. I like the example you give in Uganda and how it demonstrates the use of minutes as currency and shows the other roles that cell phones can take in developing countries.

    One place I think you should consider exploring is how cell phones can connect people through education or in distribution of information. You mention the “equalizing power of the cellphone,” which is a really powerful phrase, and I am interested to see what other domains the cell phone has leveled the playing field.

    Jeremy Keeshin

  3. ccrvisitor says:

    I agree with Steven – you should definitely consider how big corporations and NGOs are involved in this whole process.Where do they get the cell phones from? Are they the cell phones that are recycled from users in more developing countries through programs set up by large telephone companies such as At&T and Verizon? Maybe even consider the difference between our use of cell phones in the western world compared to the cultural significance they have in developing countries. Is there a better system that could be established rather than the one already set up? Are the middle-men taking too much of a commission? Obviously I don’t know the answers, but the actual process might be interested to delve into a little more. What other benefits does this kind of relationship with mobile phones potentially enable?

    All in all, I really enjoy your topic. There is a lot you can do with it. But, I don’t necessarily think its broadness as a topic is a bad thing if you are able to touch on a little bit of everything.

  4. ccrvisitor says:

    Your example of cell phone use in Uganda was really fascinating. I had no idea that such things were going on in the world, and I’m really interested in seeing what other types of examples you might discover during your research. I know that Steven said to go look for the relationship between the people and the corporations/NGOs, but I’m actually far more interested in examples like the one you posted and the topic you seem to be focusing on. I definitely want to see more examples of the people in a developing country redefining the role of a cell phone to fit their needs, and I think you chose the perfect aspect of this topic to focus on.

    -Christopher Sung

  5. Pingback: I Love the Personal Electronics Market at A Geek With Guns

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