The spread of the mobile phone has connected populations in ever more marginal and remote regions of the world. This has lead to a sense of new possibilities but also to new challenges. Often, there’s a vast distance between the worldview of scholars, policymakers and system implementers, on the one hand, and the priorities and practices of potential users, on the other. We built this resource in an effort to bridge this distance and to expand thinking about the role of mobile phones in the livelihood activities of agriculturalists and market actors of the Global South.

Can farmers use mobile phones to get better prices for their crops? This is the quintessential example offered in mass media coverage, policy debates, and among researchers considering the potential for better information to bring about ‘development’ in poor and previously unconnected populations. However, the space of potentially useful applications is also far broader and more varied than ‘information delivery’ applications. Money transfer systems like m-Pesa in Kenya and other financial services offer a whole new genre of uses, such as the secure transfer of financial capital tapping into trade networks and the support systems of distributed families. The mobile phone and its design for personal ownership seems to lend itself to systems that target individual farmers/traders rather than the collectives (such as trade unions, societies, and cooperatives) that often mediate trade. Some of the critical elements of trade practice that characterize transactions in the informal and marginal market spaces we have studied, include the reliance on trusted relationships, recurrent interaction, and rich communication. While information circulates within these interactions, it is evaluated as reliable and is rendered usable through these connections.

This is not to say that entrenched ways of doing trade make the mobile phone useless in such contexts. Some farmers, fishermen, traders and other market actors find the mobile phone indispensable to their trade activities, but often through practices that are to some extent consistent with long-standing ways of doing trade and carrying out transactions rather than being totally and radically transformative.

The goal of this web resource is four-fold:

  • To promote research not just as a way to evaluate systems, projects, and programs but also to innovate. In particular human-centered design practices deserve more traction in ICTD work (both among researchers and practitioners). Such a design practice starts with rich and detailed understanding of the humans who are meant to use and benefit from the eventual design. In the profiles section we offer details about life course and livelihood activities for a diverse set of farmers, fishermen and traders.  This material comes from interviews and immersive ethnographic fieldwork in several countries: Uganda, Ghana, China, and India. This is meant to serve as a starting point for such thinking about the values and perspectives of agriculturalists and market actors in the Global South.
  • To serve as a clearinghouse for information about existing projects in the space of agriculture, trade, and ICTs (including mobile phones, computers, the Internet, as well as longer standing media technologies like radio and television). In the projects section we list as many different real-world examples as we could find information about including efforts by university and industry research groups, private sector ventures, and implementations by aid organizations.
  • To create a bridge between researchers and practitioners working in this area. Towards that aim we have brought together both academic and other materials in the literature section. We connect material and insights from our own fieldwork with relevant research findings.  We hope to offer opportunities for practitioners to contribute to and participate in this growing resource.
  • To create a bridge between the different disciplines involved in this area. The literature section includes publications by economists, sociologists, anthropologists, computer scientists, and others who ask different kinds of questions, analyze from different perspectives, and think about how knowledge might be applied in quite different ways. Reading and conversing across the different relevant disciplines is difficult, but offers the potential for integrated knowledge to improve system implementations, program building, and policies in this area.

The Team:

Jenna Burrell – Associate Professor, School of Information, UC-Berkeley (contributing fieldwork from Ghana, Uganda)

Janet Kwami – Assistant Professor, Furman University (contributing fieldwork from Ghana)

Elisa Oreglia – PhD Student (Graduated), School of Information, UC-Berkeley (contributing fieldwork from China)

Ishita Ghosh – PhD Student, School of Information, UC-Berkeley (contributing fieldwork from Uganda and India)

Aisha Kigongo – Masters Student (Graduated), School of Information, UC-Berkeley (contributing fieldwork from Uganda)

Janaki Srinivasan – Researcher, School of Information, UC-Berkeley (contributing fieldwork from Kerala, India)

Richa Kumar – Assistant Professor, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (contributing fieldwork from Kerala, India)

Luisa Emmi Beck – Research Assistant, School of Information, UC-Berkeley (profiles, overall web resource construction and management)

Funding sources:

The funding for this project comes from several sources:

    This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1027310. (PI: Jenna Burrell, UC-Berkeley, co-PI: Janet Kwami, Furman University). The grant titled “How Marginalized Populations Self-Organize with Digital Tools,” funded fieldwork in Ghana, China, and Uganda. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

    A gift from Nokia Corporation for studying “Rural-Urban Connections and the Mobile Phone in Emerging Economies” that funded fieldwork and the building of this resource.

    A grant through the Institution for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) at UC-Irvine titled, “A Work Practice Approach to Understanding Actors in Agricultural Markets: Revisiting the Fishermen of Kerala, India” funded fieldwork in India.


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