Category Archives: The Economist

DIY Telecoms

IN THE cloud forests of the Sierra de Juárez mountains in southern Mexico, a new kind of tree is springing up: the mobile telephone mast. Unlike most phone masts in the world these are installed, owned and operated by small, mostly indigenous communities. Providing a mobile service in these villages was not profitable enough for big telecoms companies to bother with, unless the locals stumped up $50,000. But improvements in software and the falling price of hardware has made it possible to build a local mobile-phone base station for around $7,500, which non-profit operators and small communities can muster. Continue reading DIY Telecoms

Bit loans

WANT to get some cash at automated teller machines in Nairobi? Don’t be surprised by the guards with machine guns. ATMs attract plenty of muggers and pickpockets.

Unsurprisingly, cashless transactions have been catching on fast in Nairobi and elsewhere in Africa. Microfinance organisations were among the pioneers. In Kenya, for instance, they started using M-PESA, the popular mobile money service, to hand out loans to small-time businesspeople in 2008, soon after its launch.

Musoni, a Kenyan microfinance firm with more than 10,000 customers and over $6.3m in loans since its launch in May 2010, is now taking the idea even further: in an effort to bypass banks and make microfinance more efficient, it has gone completely cashless—a worldwide first, claims Cameron Goldie-Scot, the firm’s chief operating officer.

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The power of money

HIGH-SPEED currency trading uses oodles of computing power to exploit short-lived price differences in international foreign-exchange markets. Jonathon Keats proposes an alternative: exploit the electrical differences between currencies to power a low-speed computer. In an exhibit which opens on April 12th at the Rockefeller Centre in New York Mr Keats, a concept artist (or, as he likes to call himself, an experimental philosopher), introduces the notion “electro-chemical arbitrage”. An engineer might call it a battery.

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Dispatching the middleman

MANY cabbies pay a dispatcher to keep the fares coming. The dispatchers are an information clearing-house, offering customers a central point of contact and offering on-the-move drivers directions to the nearest prospective passenger. But location-enabled smartphones in the pockets of more customers, and on the dashboards of more drivers, offer a tempting way to skip the middleman. If, that is, customers and drivers can find a handy way to share their locations.

Enter the app developer. In Sweden, Germany, Spain and Britain this new breed of middleman has released a slew of taxi-finding apps in recent years. When a customer requests a taxi, the applications ping the nearest available driver. He can accept the fare, paying a small commission, or skip it. Some applications offer customers an estimate of the fare, ratings of potential drivers or, once a match is made, a moving blip on the map, showing  their drivers’ progress. All this is especially useful for visitors unfamiliar with a city or late-night revellers uncertain of their street address.

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