Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/6/2016 (366 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Travelling to the developing world always reminds me what Canadians take for granted is a luxury elsewhere.
Three weeks in Kenya reminded me clean water and the infrastructure to deliver it are a primary responsibility of government. Flickering lights and frequent blackouts make ensuring reliable electricity just as important.
I even found myself thinking fondly of stop signs, traffic lights and people directing traffic. In Nairobi, traffic is an organic flow of intuitive manoeuvring by instinct rather than by rule, slowed to a manageable pace only by volume, potholes and speed bumps. Traffic lights and traffic cops wreak havoc instead of imposing order, and I was happy to let someone else drive.
It is no surprise the developing world is developing. What we need to remember is the things — in our stop-lighted, well-watered and electrified world — we can learn from people who live in places such as Kenya.
Take cellphones. Here we fuss that MTS is being bought out by Ma Bell and so our rates will go up, though the network will not improve. I would be first in line to buy shares if only MTS (and Bell) could be taken over by Safaricom, Kenya’s main mobile telephone company.
My cost for a cellphone in Kenya was less than 25 per cent of what it is here — and apart from inconveniences such as being in the middle of hills with no line of sight to a cell tower — the service was impeccable. I uploaded a selfie picture with a wild giraffe to Facebook from the middle of the Great Rift Valley in seconds, but while at home in Manitoba I have difficulty using my phone to make a call anywhere.
I have a new phone, MTS gives me the best coverage outside the city (as friends and families with other providers frequently moan) and yet rarely can I make a call from home without it being dropped or full of static.
Granted, I am in the wilds of St. Andrews, fully 15 metres from a main highway, but somehow it is a little galling that friends in rural Kenya who have no electricity other than a solar panel can routinely communicate with me and are often the first ones to "like" my posts online.
In Kenya, a SIM card costs about $10, and after that you pay for the airtime you use — in increments as little as 50 cents.
In three weeks of constant use (especially with power outages affecting the Internet), I phoned, sent international texts, emails, posted and transmitted pictures, tweeted and Facebooked, all for less than $25. If my balance was too low, I just purchased a scratch card from any of 10,000 vendors everywhere, who even sell them by the side of the road during traffic jams.
It works for everyone — not just the people with new phones — and even 50 cents goes a long way for SMS and phone calls. Kenya is more effectively cross-wired than Canada, despite the lack of land lines.
And then there is M-Pesa.
M-Pesa is Safaricom’s mobile banking network. In a country where bank branches are rare (and bank accounts expensive), M-Pesa is the way money is moved around the country, bills are paid and transactions recorded, all through a "wallet" attached to the person’s cell number. It is simple, effective and efficient — and makes our mobile banking networks look antediluvian.
Which is a great word, actually — meaning from before the great flood Noah and his friends rode out on the ark, two by two.
The great flood in this instance would be the Internet and the way our world is cross-wired and interconnected in ways no one before believed possible. It is a flood of information, on which (in developed countries, where ark-building is our specialty) we try to stay afloat by continuing to do things as we have always done them.
The problem, of course, is the flood has already lasted more than 40 days and nights. People in the developing world have neither the money nor the expertise to build arks, so they have to find another way.
At home, I miss my Safaricom phone and chafe at the various plastic cards that define how I can manage my money. Whenever I make a phone call here, I am reminded developing countries are not just playing catch-up — in some ways, they are well past where we are.
When we consider what lies ahead for everyone, with the real floods that life in a climate-changing world has in store for all of us, we could learn so much about resilience, perseverance and hope from the people of Kenya.
Whatever we could teach them about development, they could teach us just as much about developing.
Peter Denton teaches the history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.