Subsistence marketplaces and low-cost smartphones


This week I started a MOOC by the University of Illinois on subsistence marketplaces. The purpose of the course is to get to know the challenges of people living in subsistence conditions, and more specifically in relation to the marketplaces where they buy the things (food, goods) they need in their daily lives and/or well as sell produce and other goods.

Part of this MOOC is a (personal/group) project in which you design a solution for a problem they might be facing. In the discussions about these projects the need for a low-cost smartphone surfaced, seeing some brands already have one. A question related to these low-cost phones was, wouldn’t those people in subsistence conditions be the ones who are exploited first to produce those low-cost smartphones. The would be doubly cruel.

So, here’s my question to you. Do you foresee, in your roadmap at some stage, a low-cost model for those markets, produced such that these people don’t bear the burden of owning a piece of technology that might also improve their lives?

Here’s the MOOC:



I don’t know how realistic it is to get sub $100 phones built under fair working conditions. Fairness has a price, and I think that achieving a fair production chain is not possible if you want to nickle and dime everyone on the production chain as well.


I’m with @Jerry. From a social view electronic devices are quite to cheap, because social and environmental costs are not included. Fairphone tries to add the prices again by supporting initiatives and initializing own programs.
So being expensive for the right reasons was important for my decision to by a Fairphone, because cheap and fair doesn’t fit together. Otherwise I would have bought a phone with better technical specification for a hundred bugs less.



I fully agree with that. On the other hand,I now realize that fairness also means getting this technology in the hands of people who would not necessarily use it to share pictures of cats with it. The conundrum here is that while there are (ideas for) apps abound that would help people in this kind of situation, the devices are largely unaffordable. Making those devices (close to) affordable likely entails exploiting those very same people.
So maybe I phrased the question poorly. Maybe it should be: is there on FairPhone’s roadmap a point where they would venture and get a smartphone in the hands of people who could really use it to make changes in their daily lives.

Who are these people you are talking about? Do they really want/need a smart phone?

That is not so clear to me just yet. This post was prompted by a discussion about low-cost smartphones on the MOOC’s forum and, additionally because in the course of previous installments of that very same MOOC, people had conceptualized apps as a solution to the problems these people face. These apps can only be solutions if the devices they run on are accessible.

Sounds like you’re looking for a solution without clearly defining the problem first.
A better direction is to think about education in developing countries. It’s important to learn kids how to read, write and do math, but if you want to broaden their horizons you’ll need to go further than that. I think the Internet could be a valuable tool with that, for communication, learning and getting a view on what’s going on in the world; locally, nationally and globally. I think it’s important to get schools in developing countries connected to the Internet.

What’s needed for that? Well, devices that can run a web browser. Sure, a smartphone is a possibility, but maybe not the most efficient solution. A simple computer, perhaps even a Raspberry Pi, allows children in schools to not only consume content on the Internet but produce it as well. Smart phones still are traditionally devices for consumption rather than production.

So yeah, I think it’s an interesting discussion, but we need to think about what we’re trying to accomplish before coming up with solutions.

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More specific about smart phones: devices like Microsoft’s Surface blends a tablet form factor with laptop usability, running Windows 8.1. An excellent direction if you ask me. The concept is still in its infancy if you ask me, but it might just be that in a few years time your smartphone is as powerful as a current high end laptop and you hook up a USB mouse and keyboard to it and an HDMI monitor and you’ve got your pocket sized desktop solution right there.

You’re right that I was a bit overenthusiastic :smile: It’s just that I find these issue very interesting, nothing to mention that they touch me deeply. On the other hand, like I said, a lot of solutions required a device of some sorts, so inquiring about, in that sense was not too premature.

On this topic I would advocate encouraging second-hand smartphones, through precise actions like improving Fairphone’s associated recycling company and focussing it towards subsistence markets.
I’m sad this still describes ‘the other poors’ are different from us, but it’s already better than questionning their need…
To me it wouldn’t be shocking that a second-had Fairphone be valued less than 100€ (as this seems the target).

A specific occasion to do this could be this May, when Fairphone announces the next generation product: you have a large ‘potential supply’ of FP1 owners, most of them convinced of the interest of ‘socially reasonable behavior’, and at the same time interested in the next, better techno for most of them: it’s just up to you to connect the dots…

This may be beyond your current assignment, but OTOH is actual action, to be started now…

That is an excellent suggestion! Thanks