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Calling for Change

Forget about free trade agreements, hydroelectric dams, and paved roads. The most important tool for spurring development in poor countries might just fit in the palm of your hand. "Mobile phones are more critical [to development] than physical infrastructure," says University of Michigan management expert C.K. Prahalad. Easy communication helps people negotiate deals, get goods ...

Forget about free trade agreements, hydroelectric dams, and paved roads. The most important tool for spurring development in poor countries might just fit in the palm of your hand. "Mobile phones are more critical [to development] than physical infrastructure," says University of Michigan management expert C.K. Prahalad. Easy communication helps people negotiate deals, get goods to market, and access important services, such as banking or insurance.

The trouble is, the cost of mobile handsets remains out of reach for most of the world’s poorest people. Experts say that cutting the average price of a mobile telephone from $60 to $30 would double the number of users in the developing world, adding 930 million phones to poor countries by 2010.

That’s why the GSM Association, a London-based trade group, recently hosted a competition that promised cell phone manufacturers a contract to supply 6 million handsets to 10 mobile companies operating in emerging markets from Bangladesh to Uganda, if they could produce a $30 phone. Motorola’s C113a took the prize. The 3-ounce phone is encased in durable plastic, has text-messaging capability and a long battery life, and forgoes a costly color display.

Still, selling phones in the far reaches of the developing world remains a challenge. Motorola’s solution? Drive vans it calls "motobuses" into remote villages to sell the phones to customers. That’s the kind of roaming that may actually help the poor.

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