Mobile Technology for the Developing World

From better prices for their crops to disease prevention, the world's rural poor are beginning to harvest a rich crop of benefits from cell phone technology — and NYU Abu Dhabi researchers are helping to lead the way.

NYUAD's Center for Technology and Economic Development (CTED), under the direction of Professor Yaw Nyarko, is working to improve, employ, and encourage mobile phone uses and applications that go far beyond mere voice calls and email.

"We're interested in human-capital models of economic growth," said Nyarko, a Ghanaian-born professor of Economics, founder of Africa House at NYU New York, and co-founder of NYU's Development Research Institute.

"Technology, and especially mobile phone tools, are going to be extremely important" in economic development in poor regions, Nyarko said, and that is where CTED is focused.

In upcountry Ghana, for example, CTED is helping small farmers use cell phone GPS technology to ascertain the exact boundaries of their fields. This promotes efficiency — what's the point of weeding your neighbor's land, or buying more fertilizer than you need? — and helps to avoid property-line disputes. Field agents of Ghana's Ministry of Food and Agriculture "love that app," Nyarko said.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, phones are giving rural people a new way to fight dengue fever, a deadly mosquito-borne viral infection. Any time villagers detect a case they call an official number. The calls are geo-located, so public health experts can pinpoint outbreaks and launch localized preventive measures. Pakistan's health ministry is working with CTED in applying this system, Nyarko said.

Nyarko mentioned other current and potential uses of cell phone technology. For instance, easy communication of up-to-date crop information — yams are fetching 10 percent more today in town A than in village B — is increasingly available through informal producers' networks, in part due to CTED's work.

Then there is election fairness. Local people can now text-message the count from each ballot box to other districts, making it harder for anyone to tamper with the voting papers after that initial count.

And this is only the beginning. The M-pesa system that started in Kenya makes prepaid mobile phone minutes a kind of currency, easily swapped from one account to another.

We have so many ideas. We run out and try to do them in the communities.

Yaw Nyarko, NYUAD professor of Economics

"M-pesa is now a form of banking," Nyarko noted with satisfaction. "It's hard to find banks in rural regions, and you can't have automatic teller machines where there's no reliable electricity. But with SMS text messaging, here is a bank, out of nowhere! It becomes a currency economy, with phone minutes as the currency."

Of course mobile phones, too, need power, but an ingenious solution to that problem has sprung up, Nyarko explained, in Ghana and elsewhere: "There are people who will take a car battery into a village, and for a small fee let people recharge their phones from it."

All in all, cell phone technology, making wired telephony unnecessary in areas where it is unavailable, holds increasing promise of better conditions for rural populations. CTED's role in this process is to encourage, evaluate, and disseminate innovations. It's a big task and one that is just starting.

"We have so many ideas," Nyarko said. "We run out and try to do them in the communities." After not quite three years of operations, CTED has a lot of projects under way. "Most of these things haven't really come to fruition yet," Nyarko said. "Right now we're in scale-up mode. Maybe we'll have some start-ups soon." But CTED is in the process of becoming a robust research entity.

CTED has established a research center at NYU's Accra Campus, as well as local offices known as town halls in two rural agricultural districts in Ghana. They are also working with the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange (ECX) to study the impact of the exchange's introduction in Ethiopia. This research will be of importance in Ghana as the ECX is the technical and management advisor of the Ghanaian government in the implementation of their commodities exchange. In the town halls in Ghana, Nyarko said, "we are getting to know the people. They like it that we are actually listening to them."

Nyarko's fellow faculty members are Lakshminarayanan Subramanian, an associate professor at NYU's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and Jay Chen, assistant professor of Computer Science at NYUAD. They work with about 10 doctoral students and half a dozen postdoctoral researchers and software engineers, some based in Abu Dhabi and some based in New York who also spend time in Abu Dhabi.

CTED's work seems to be far from Nyarko's roots as a theoretical economist, but he noted that theory and practice go together. "Behind the applied part is serious academic work. For example, if we're studying something with 1,000 farmers, we have to randomize them, make sure we have both good and bad farmers in the sample, make sure it's all correct in terms of how we get the data."

The practical applications, more than the theory, have won CTED favorable notice in Ghana: President John Dramani Mahama spoke at NYUNY in October 2013, as did Jerry John Rawlings, a former president, in 2012.

For all the rigor of his academic background, Nyarko said with evident satisfaction that CTED's work is not only theoretical. "We have to write research papers, but we also think we're doing some good in the lives of people."

This article originally appeared in NYUAD's 2013-14 Research Report (13MB PDF).