Muhammad Yunus, Craig McCaw, mobile phones and poor people

Mobile phone

Founders of Seattle's Grameen Technololgy Center share a laugh. From left, Alex Counts, Peter Bladin, Susan McCaw, Craig McCaw

A decade ago, few thought poor people had much use for cell phones and, likewise, few in the cell phone industry had much use for poor people.

The folks who launched Seattle’s Grameen Foundation Technology Center, which yesterday celebrated its 10th year anniversary (and new digs in Belltown), disagreed with both of those assumptions.

More importantly, they proved both assumptions stunningly wrong. Africa, for example, is today home to the fastest growth in mobile phone use. In Seattle alone, there seems to be a new company springing up every month looking to grow the cell phone business in the developing world.

“When we started on this, others in the industry thought Africa was irrelevant,” said Craig McCaw, the wireless magnate who built an empire in the early days of the cell phone industry and who contributed the seed money (a mere $2 million) to launch the Grameen technology center.

“We’re in a unique position right now,” said Peter Bladin, outgoing director of the Grameen tech center, which is a branch of the Grameen Foundation — one of the world’s leading microfinance institutions founded on the poverty-fighting principles of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning pioneer of microfinance Muhammad Yunus.

Progress amid controversy

The field of microfinance, and Yunus himself, has been embroiled in a number of controversies lately — partly as a result of having exploded in popularity as a financial scheme and suffering all the attendant problems of rapid growth (opportunism, mission creep, debates over impact or outright scams).

While many seem to be arguing the merits of microfinance these days, few seem to be arguing anymore that cell phones don’t have a place in poor countries. What the Seattle-based Grameen tech center aims to do is make sure the rapid expansion of mobile telephony also serves the needs of poor people.

Yunus, it turns out, was also an early advocate of using cell phones to fight poverty in Bangladesh, which eventually led to Bangladesh’s largest telecommunications service Grameenphone. With McCaw’s financial assistance, the Grameen tech center was created to expand on Yunus’ vision by funding research projects devoted to making the best of the emerging technologies.

“We wanted to create a center of excellence here,” said Alex Counts, president of the Grameen Foundation, headquartered in Washington D.C.

McCaws made it possible

Counts credited the McCaws with making that possible, briefly noting the turmoil in microfinance but quickly moving on to celebrate all of the many advances being made today in exploiting the ubiquitous cell phone to help poor people improve their lives and livelihood.

“What we are doing is closing the information poverty gap,” said Bladin.

Some of the Grameen Foundation Technology Center’s projects: Giving a smallholder farmer the information he or she needs to improve agricultural productivity or get the best prices for a crop; providing traveling health workers with on-the-go access to critical information they need to care for people; developing software that allows people without access to banks to make payments or transfers on a cell phone.

I’ll explore one of these projects in more detail tomorrow, a project in Uganda known as the community knowledge worker program.

The goal of all of these initiatives, said Bladin, is not merely to make use of the cell phone as just another tool that poor people can also use. The goal of the Grameen Foundation, he said, is to bend technology to serve a much bigger aim: Defeating poverty.

“Too many of these (technology) projects are one-offs,” said Bladin, with the untested assumption that somehow technology alone will help bring people out of poverty — or maybe just another commercial scheme, gilded as a “social” venture, which is only aimed at selling a product or a service.

“Our goal is to figure out how to leave most of the money in the village,” Bladin said.


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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.