Ever since I heard about the Grameen Foundation’s Village Phone program, I’ve been optimistic. The program involves helping people in remote villages run pay-for-use cellphone services: they get their cellphone, and a loan to buy it, via Grameen, then charge other villagers to use it. It’s an approach to fighting poverty that’s (a) relatively new; (b) using a product that hasn’t been available for a long time but seems clearly useful to anyone doing business in remote areas; (c) utilizing a “franchise model” where people in the villages take a stake in the product.
It was near the top of my “Probably helping people, even though we don’t yet have systematic evaluation yet” list. Now Chris Blattman points to a discouraging evaluation that found “absolutely no impact of the phones on trading activity or availability of goods in local markets” and very small (non-significant) impacts on profits and measures of well-being (school enrollment, consumption of meat, etc.)
This bottom-line result does not, by itself, mean the program “doesn’t work.” It could work very differently in different contexts (discussed below), and there are some possible issues with the paper (which is very recent, and is not a randomized controlled trial). But one thing I like about the study is that it doesn’t just discuss impact – it examines many aspects of the program, and exposes assumptions that may otherwise have gone unquestioned.
Assumption 1: the phones are in high demand and operators easily cover their costs. In fact, usage of the phones was around 4 hours a month, or 8 minutes a day (pg 19). As a result, profits from the phones were not enough to keep up with loan payments (pg 19). Grameen reportedly has responded by changing loan and franchise terms (pg 30). Tuvugane (pg 5), a less sophisticated phone product that was already common in the villages, may have been good enough for most purposes.
Assumption 2: farmers who use the phones benefit from better pricing power. Even though farmers with access to the phones became much more likely to arrange their own transport to market, there was no apparent effect on the prices they received for their goods, possibly due to established relationships with buyers (pg 16).
Assumption 3: if someone chooses to become a cellphone operator, they’re going to benefit from it. In fact, there was a very strange pattern in the businesses of people who became phone operators. Their hours worked rose significantly both for their new phone business and for their already-existing businesses, but their profits and wages paid did not rise (pgs 17-18). A possible explanation is that operators wanted to be available for cellphone users and so stayed at their workplaces longer, but that the extra hours didn’t translate into extra profits. In any case, it’s a pattern that doesn’t seem encouraging, and seems to deserve further investigation.
Bottom line: a product that was supposed to be helpful and in high demand arguably ended up as a bad investment for the franchise operators. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been tried, or that it shouldn’t be tried in the future. But it points to the importance of testing assumptions empirically, rather than scaling up a program as widely as possible based on an appealing story.