The power of texting

By JEFF INGLIS  |  March 2, 2012

RN There are all sorts of problems built into it, but I would argue that some of these things could benefit by starting on the local level and then seeing whether they scale up. For instance, I can see a particularly vibrant and big street market having some alternative payment system. Whether it would be mobile-phone minutes or something else really almost doesn't matter, but I can see them doing that, and trying to do that in the way that avoids the kinds of fluctuations that you're talking about. Then, once it's accepted on that local level, they can see how that would interact with other kinds of operations. It's not automatic that everyone trusts each other anyway. The Chinese merchants don't necessarily trust the African merchants, so what they trust is the trusted currency right now. For instance, I could see in China where a Nigerian merchant could pay his fixers (the either African or Chinese guys who take him around to different factories to see where he can get stuff manufactured), I could see that merchant paying in mobile-phone credit or some other kind of alternative currency. To scale that up to some sort of larger transnational kind of thing, I think would be much more difficult.

DW You're exactly right, Robert, about this stuff being born at the community level, and in a lot of ways there isn't a huge need early on for it to expand further, and in many ways, that's what this whole idea of community currencies is about. It's sort of like the "eat local" movement. So you want to use your Ithaca Hours locally, or you want to use you MTN airtime minutes locally within that city, or region or country, but if it has an exchange rate to the dollar or something else then for those who do need to jump out to buy something from overseas, or transact overseas, they can, but they don't really have much of a need or a motivation to locally (especially if they get a little bit of a discount by transacting with this local currency that is there to kind of hyper-drive local commerce).

HOW WOULD THAT AFFECT THE INTER-RELATIONSHIPS? ROBERT, YOU TALK A LOT ABOUT THE CHINA-AFRICA TRADE. THERE ARE LOTS AND LOTS OF PEOPLE WHO ARE IN AFRICA, IN THEIR VARIOUS COUNTRIES, WHO NEVER LEAVE THEIR COUNTRIES OR NEVER GO FAR FROM THEIR VILLAGES — AND NEVERTHELESS ARE BUYING DOWNY OR RADIOS OR CELL PHONES THAT COME FROM OTHER COUNTRIES.

RN Most of the time the deal starts with someone who goes. So there is an African guy who goes to China — or an African woman. The relationships are made face-to-face, initially. Once you develop trust face-to-face then everything is possible. But it's really based on the trust you can develop in person. In that way, it's no different from what I did. If I called up a Nigerian merchant who does business with China and just tried to ask him questions over the phone, he'd never answer me. So what I had to do was go there. I had to show up and develop trust with people and give them a reason why they could think that I'd be honestly presenting what they do with a degree of dignity for them. And so as long as they can do that then whatever alternate currency they are willing to transact in would be probably fine. I mean if China Mobile offered an M-Pesa type service, I'm sure that the African merchants who did business with Linda Chan — who I mentioned my book who is a relatively small-scale dealer in auto parts in Guangzhou (and when I say relatively small-scale, it's more than a million dollars a year, but that's still small scale compared to some major factories) — with the merchants that she knows she would then be willing to accept payment that way because she would trust the merchants would be open and aboveboard because she knows them and they come recommended by people that she knows.

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