Apphilanthropy: iPhones for the Poor

It’s impossible for me to deny that the iPhone has improved my life.

It’s shiny and helpful. Since I purchased my first one a few years ago I have learned to love it, from eliminating the need for a music player to giving me seamless email and calendar management, a networked camera and a bajillion apps, it’s done great and useful things for me. I am looking forward to the next one, because I keep breaking mine.

I’m miraculously on what is my 5th iPhone, after dropping, losing and crushing several different 3G’s. The last time my phone did a faceplant and splintered the touchscreen into several hundred fragments, I was just about to go on a trip to Cambodia, where I have worked for a number of years with poor farmers.

Rather than getting the screen replaced in San Francisco (which would have cost over $100), I decided to wait, and while I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and ended up getting the whole thing refurbished for $35 bucks, back to front. The kid that fixed my phone knew exactly what he was doing, had access to every spare part he needed, and knew more about recent IOS versions than your average hacker in California. My phone was basically brand new.

This kid, along with all of his friends, were more excited about iPhones than any Mac fanboy. Even old original iPhone 1G’s were in substantial demand, after being carried over on the black market and sold at a ridiculous markup. Several friends in-country have asked me to traffic phones back to Asia for them, since they’re comparably so cheap in the US. I find that weird because they’re manufactured in China, which is basically right there.

Apple gets some flack for not doing much as a company to actually help solve any problems outside of the developed world. If anything, people say they do the opposite. IPhones parts are made from Coltan sourced from conflict areas in Western Africa. Manufacturing conditions in their Shenzhen factory have been called poor and worker suicide is a problem.

I live in San Francisco and work in the world of Social Ventures, where everyone seems to think that considerations about the supply-chain of your product can actually improve its consumer appeal, and bottom-line. I think that’s generally true for undistinguished products, but in Apple’s case, they really don’t have any reason to care since they basically own every market they’re in.

I actually think this is okay, or at lease forgivable. I mean, they have kick-ass products, and I understand that quality comes with cost. Like I said, I love my iPhone. And so does everyone else.

So, through sheer awesomeness I think we need to recognize how much potential their product and approaches have to change the world. This is where I think Apple should do some stuff that is innovative, unexpected and potentially profoundly good for its bottom-line.

Get Apple’s older-generation iPhones distributed for cheap throughout the developing world, and do so as a tax write-off. Don’t give them away, but get them to a point of reasonable affordability. This will likely involve getting refurbished inventory out the door and into the hands of third-party vendors in developing countries. You may need to crank out a cheaper version of the iPhone or reinstate the first generation. I know the handsets are expensive, but with economies of scale and existing refurbished inventory you could get your price point down to a reasonable level. Regardless of how, airlifting iPhones into developing countries by the truckload is a really good idea. Why? Because it could do far more than one would expect. 

First of all: it’s a massive business opportunity. Just as apple was a loss-leader in education in the US at first, it became the dominant educational brand by introducing computing to classrooms early on. If such a program existed internationally, iPhones would be the first real computer to touch the hands of millions of kids in the developing world. That is seeding demand and growth opportunities in a very real and tangible way.

Second of all: it could change the way people deal with poverty. The innovations behind the iPhone’s hardware have been substantial for sure, but the most remarkable thing about it is the problem-solving ecosystem that Steve has created around its software. The App Store itself may be one of the most successful entrepreneurial engines we have ever seen. The barrier to entry is relatively low, and the payouts are potentially huge for individual developers. Apple could have never designed and created its most successful apps in-house. Why? Because it’s impossible for a company to see every possible use of its product. Similarly, as outsiders interested in solving problems throughout the developing world, we cannot legitimately expect the UN or World Bank to externally create a solution to combat poverty from a think-tank in DC or NY. These things rarely happen from the top-down.

What we need is the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the App Store coupled with the tiny supercomputers called iPhones in the hands of precocious young minds in the developing world. With the right distribution and resources you could find people using the same tools to build educational products and solid development solutions from the bottom-up. What we need is an App Store to fight poverty.

People have often asked me my opinion on how long it takes for people to escape poverty. My answer has consistently been that it only takes one generation with the right conditions. How is that possible?

Poverty is circumstantial and crippling, but providing opportunity to a child and feeding their hungry mind early can completely change that trajectory.

You ever give a touchscreen smartphone to your little niece or nephew to play with, you’ll see how quickly obsessed they become with the device. If it’s game playing or photo taking or just swishing from screen to screen, they know this crazy little piece of glass in their hands is worthy of their obsession. Any kid in the developing world has the exact same experience. They want to figure it out. 

The difference between developed and developing worlds is that kids here are taught to think that it’s not that amazing and quickly move on. In the developing world that magic little portal does not cease to be magic. They are usually the most powerful computers the kids have ever touched, and are a gateway to a complex and amazing universe we take for granted. With the right support, that nugget of innate interest will often bloom into a full-fledged educational thread, which may include engineering, computer science, and any other number of applied skills as they try to figure out how that little device works.

These kids are often budding entrepreneurs, thinkers and problem solvers. With a tool like an iPhone (or an Android-powered smartphone for that matter), intermittent access to the web and a little training, could develop applications to solve problems in their communities which we would never expect.  One of my favorite blogs, Afrigadget illustrates some of this innate ingenuity in a tremendous way, sans advanced technology.

Currently nonprofits, NGO’s and other institutions try to engineer solutions to poverty-related problems from the outside-in. No one knows how to solve local problems better than local entrepreneurs, as long as they have the tools to do so. The iPhone could be that tool.

A note on boredom: I remember the first time I found myself in front of a computer as a bored kid. Between word processors, bad games and navigating DOS, I became a obsessed enough to code my own text games in the simple programming language Basic, which eventually led me into the world of web technology, which is one of the most valuable skill sets i’ve ever learned. That was with a very crappy old computer, in my spare time to combat boredom. That computer now fits in my pocket and is thousands of times more engaging and powerful. I know many entrepreneurs with similar stories: When it comes down to it, time boredom and opportunity for discovery is a potent mixture for unlocking potential.

At a recent local hackathon in Estonia, a bunch of kids put together an application called Bribespot, which is a smartphone app allowing you to anonymously report bribes and corruption nearby. As these devices begin to permeate the developing world, these kinds of applications could help solve some of the more tenacious and intractable problems of our times.

I’m not suggesting we forgo traditional humanitarian initiatives and exchange mosquito bednets for iPhones. Nor am I suggesting that air-dropping smartphones into Africa would somehow bring about a panacea of poverty elimination. However, I do think that significantly increasing local access to this technology could be a game-changing accelerator to growth, and might actually deliver on the real promise of Nicholas Negroponte’s over-designed vision of One Laptop Per Child.

I’m not so naive as to think that IOS and Apple are not the most likely candidate to enter this market. Android operating system is growing far faster internationally and their handsets tend to be much cheaper than iPhones. The Android marketplace is still relatively fragmented and messy, which is why having Apple’s attention focused on this space as a potential market would be enormous for application developers, even as a side-project.

some iphones, please.

But think about it. The vacum of education that exists for kids throughout the developing world is possibly of the largest pools of untapped potential we have. Without needing to change educational institutions in governments, simply by providing access to incredible little computers and some tools for self-learning, we could unlock an alternate educational system focused on auto-didacticism and indigenous problem solving.

Steve Jobs created something amazing and built one of the most important devices we have. Apple has an opportunity to give back far more than shareholder profit, and extend Steve’s legacy to the rest of humanity. Apple might hear the echoes of Steve in staying foolish and consider doing something brash that just might change the world. I suspect a few million hungry minds would thank them for it.