Jenny C. Aker and Isaac M. Mbiti in the Boston Review:
There are some good reasons to believe that mobile phones could be the gateway to better lives and livelihoods for poor people. While some of the most fundamental ideas in economics about the virtues of markets assume that information is costless and equally available to all, low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa are very far from that idealization. Prior to the introduction of mobile phones, farmers, traders, and consumers had to travel long distances to markets, often over very poor roads, simply to obtain price (and other) information. Such travel imposed significant costs in time and money.
Mobile phones, by contrast, reduce the cost of information. When mobile phones were introduced in Niger, search costs fell by half. Farmers, consumers, and firms can now obtain more and in many cases “better” information—in other words, information that meets their needs. People can then use this information to take advantage of arbitrage opportunities by selling in different markets at different times of year, migrating to new areas, or offering new products. This should, in theory, lead to more efficient markets and improve welfare.
An emerging body of research suggests that perhaps theory is meeting reality. In many cases, these economic gains from information have occurred without donor investments or interventions from non-governmental organizations. Rather, they are the result of a positive externality from the information technology (IT) sector.
In Niger, millet, a household staple, is sold via traditional markets scattered throughout the country. Some markets are more than a thousand kilometers away from others with which they trade. The rollout of mobile phone coverage reduced grain price differences across markets by 15 percent between 2001 and 2007, with a greater impact on markets isolated by distance and poor-quality roads. Mobile phones allowed traders to better respond to surpluses and shortages, thereby allocating grains more efficiently across markets and dampening price differences. Mobile phone coverage also increased traders’ profits and decreased the volatility of prices over the course of the year.
The benefits of mobile phones are not limited to grain markets or to Africa.