Mobile Retail and Vegetarian Ivory. Who Knew?

Mobile Retail and Vegetarian Ivory. Who Knew? image 274928 h srgb s glMobile Retail and Vegetarian Ivory. Who Knew?

At the farmer’s market near my house, the emphasis is on “fresh” and “local.” So the small stall filled with handicrafts stood out not just because of its brightly-colored jewelry, but also because of its banner proclaiming “Vegetarian Ivory: Direct from Ecuador.”

Vegetarian Ivory, it turns out, is totally a thing. Made from the seeds of Tagua palms, the polished, chunky bracelets and delicate earrings were stylish and, above all, fun. They made perfect gifts and I was glad to skip a month’s worth of boutique browsing for a ten-minute transaction at the end of a morning’s shopping.

Glad, that is, until I realized all of the other purchases I made that morning depleted whatever cash I had. “No problem, said the twenty-something hipster behind the makeshift counter as he wrapped up my purchases. “I take credit cards with Square,” he said, as if it were no big deal. “Or debit cards.”

“We live in a changing world,” I joked, as I happily handed over my bank card and gathered up my treasures. Like most twenty-somethings, for whom a cell phone is an omnipresent appendage, he didn’t seem to share my amazement.

The Times They Are a’Changing

But the world is changing. And one of the biggest contributors to that, as was forecast in a Harvard Business Review study, is the increasing adoption of mobile technology, in particular in developing nations.

The journey of goods from an Ecuadorian craftsman’s bench to a Philadelphia farmer’s market is a great example of that. The Ecuadorian craftsman may live in a remote part of the world, but he now has fingertip access to the modern marketplace. His smartphone, nearly identical to the one in my pocket, connects him with the world’s 5.9 million mobile subscribers reported by the Harvard Business Review in 2010 — at least 77 percent of whom come from developing markets.

Thanks to mobile phones far more powerful than 10-year-old desktop computers, and the global adoption of icon-based apps, mobile technology is skipping across language and education barriers faster than ever, the study notes.

Couple that with the ease with which mobile networks can be set up – the construction of a few cellphone towers versus years of expensive infrastructure work and construction for landline-based broadband – means that information and technology once concentrated in urban centers and in the hands of the educated and powerful is now available with a few taps of a mobile keypad, whether in the rural United States or the plains of West Africa or mountains of South America.

Bank On It

Banks and financial institutions have long looked for ways to bring the “unbanked” poor, who operate in all-cash or barter economies, into the fold. Mobile financial services let them offer bank accounts and other services to clients all over the world, and with little need for brick-and-mortar expansion at all. In Uganda, for example, where 80 percent of the population has no access to traditional financial services, a program to help people transfer money to family members using mobile phones was processing 385,000 such peer-to-peer money transfers per month only 16 months after launching.

Back at the farmers’ market, I was thrilled to witness the impact mobile technology is having on people all over the world, but specifically in Ecuador. The twenty-stomething vendor swiped my card putting my cash into his bank account or PayPal. He’s likely paying his Ecuadorian partner in the same way. And when that craftsman gets his latest deposit, his smartphone will be able to tell him where the closest Ecuadorian coffee shop is and whether they’re got a coupon for a free latte. Just like mine.

Want to learn more how mobile technology is changing the world and parts of it closer to your home? Read the Harvard Business Review report.

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