When a poor family borrows money to pay for a used handset and a few minutes of airtime, critics of microfinance complain that this is the kind of unnecessary expense that keeps them poor. They miss the productivity boost and market information that can make a first phone so valuable in grassroots economies.
Unlike Americans, who migrated to wireless networks after more than a century of ubiquitous landline service, many poor nations were never able to establish a landline infrastructure. Today's mobile phone user in the Third World has often leapfrogged to mobile calling directly from having to walk to town in order to have a conversation.
In "Give a Village a Phone," published last month in Mobile Enterprise magazine, I talk about the opportunities to improve the effectiveness and scale of microfinance operations by taking advantage of mobile data and communications. Mobile phones and wireless networks have proven a much better technology platform than PC and land lines. The trick is to build systems and processes that are appropriate for the communities that will use them.