A Mountain of Cell Phones

I spent this past summer interning at a tiny NGO in rural Southwestern Nicaragua and while there I lived in a homestay with a Nicaraguan family. One of the things that initially struck me as odd regarding the familial situation was that despite not having access to running water or basic sanitation in the household, the family of four owned seven cell phones between them. I soon learned that this was not at all uncommon in the region; many of the adults I met in this extremely impoverished area owned between 2 and 4 cell phones. It was explained to me that the nature of cell phone companies in the country made it more affordable to carry phones from multiple carriers rather than just one. Phone companies favor (or in some cases, exclusively offer) “in” calling, and cell phones are extraordinarily cheap, while minutes are purchased in increments. All of these factors combine to create a hugely wasteful tonnage of cellular tech. The immediate concern that comes to mind is the environmental consequences of both the production and the subsequent discarding of all of this mobile technology. Since most of this manufacturing is done in developing countries half a world away, we’re sheltered from the consequences of the pollutants and waste produced by manufacturing so many pieces of technology. To get into the sub-human working conditions at many of these factories is another issue entirely, but the mass suicides in Chinese factories leading up to the release of the iPhone 5 are only a recent example. Many of the minerals that go into producing cell phones, such as tin and tungsten, are mined in conflict areas with methods that are detrimental to both the local environment and the local population. Cloud servers and the recent phenomenon of “big data” require staggering amounts of electricity. Of course I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t have cell phones—I love mine—but a system in which each person needs many is neither sustainable nor efficient.

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2 responses to “A Mountain of Cell Phones

  • laurag063

    Super interesting! Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the kind of flaw that Richard Heeks would say has been born out of paying too much attention to the “back office,” and not the “front.” This is a really strong example of the type of infrastructural inefficiencies that cause so many ICT failures in the developing world. Thanks for sharing!

  • eturner1

    I think that your experience in Nicaragua is the reason why many people are hesitant to accept the promotion of ICT4D. Doesn’t it seem a little bit odd for a community to have access to cellphones, but not running water? Like you mentioned, it would seem that this project will fail to have sustainability, and that just pushing cellphones onto the natives will not actually help their development.

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