Peter Bladin, a vice president at the Grameen Foundation who earned millions while working for Microsoft, is fighting the war on poverty in Africa using an unlikely weapon — the mobile phone, the Seattle Times reports.
Bladin, who founded the Grameen Technology Center in Seattle, oversees the center's efforts to develop mobile phones, software, and other technology that can be used to fight poverty on the continent. Using the microcredit model, local microfinance institutions lend African entrepreneurs $200 to buy a cell phone, which they then "rent" to others for pennies a call. With the resulting income, the entrepreneur eventually pays off his or her loan and begins to climb out of poverty. At the same time, the phone itself gives villagers access to vital information such as the price of corn or the approach of guerrilla fighters, without having to spend a significant portion of their day traveling to and from a landline-based phone.
In a world with no paved roads, no electricity, and few phone lines, the so-called Village Phone takes on new meaning as both livelihood and lifeline. In fact, mobile phones are the first high-tech product with more users in developing countries than in developed ones. Nevertheless, telecommunications companies have been slow to extend coverage to rural areas on the continent, the phones themselves have been too expensive for poor people, and the airtime charges remain stubbornly high.
Bladin's Grameen Technology Center is working with Nokia to help design phones that can be shared and will work in poor, rural areas. And while the effort promises to help move people out of poverty, the extensive social networks that are established by microfinance are an added bonus.
"As successful as the mobile phone industry is, you still have three billion people who have no access," said Bladin, who claims the Village Phone model can change that. "If someone lives on a dollar a day, they can spend ten or twenty cents on a phone call — they don't have to own the equipment."