Surprise! Fishermen Using Mobile Phones for Market Prices is the Largest Lie in ICT4D

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We all know the story. Fishermen use mobile phones to call ahead to different markets to find the one with best prices, so they can sell their catch for the largest profit. We’ve heard this line a thousand times, and probably have even told it ourselves.
The claim that mobile phones are used to increase fishermen income was first made in academic literature by Robert Jensen in his 2007 paper, The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance, And Welfare In The South Indian Fisheries Sector. Google says over 1,077 other academic papers cite this paper. It may be the most cited work in ICT4D academic literature. Sadly, it’s certainly wrong.
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The Case Against Fishermen Using Mobile Phones for Market Prices
In a stinging critique, Dr. Jacques Steyn, Head of the School of Information Technology at Monash South Africa, demolishes Jensen’s claim that mobile phones improved the economic welfare of Kerala fishermen using ideological, paradigmatic, methodology, logical, statistical, and semantic arguments.
A Critique of the Claims About Mobile Phones and Kerala Fisherman shows that the fisherman using mobile phones for market prices myth must be buried and forgotten – except to serve as an example of how research in complex social systems should not be conducted.
Mobile Phones Are Not Used for Market Prices
Other researchers contradict Jensen’s first claim, that fishermen use mobile phones for market prices. They found that smaller fishermen who typically fish within 2-5km offshore use mobile phones to communicate with their financiers and family about when they would return to shore. They do not communicate about market prices.
In fact, fishermen are more concerned with ham radio, which has a much greater range than mobile networks, and even then for non-market price usage. Fishermen have petitioned the Indian government for free ham radio and GPS equipment to improve weather and location awareness. They have also set up VHF networks for weather alerts, not market prices.
Fishermen Cannot Choose Their Markets
Central to Jensen’s argument is that fishermen can chose which market to sell their catch at any time. However, fishing boat movement is regulated by law and by their lenders. The Kerala Marine Fishing Regulation Act (1980) requires boats to be licensed by port and restricts fishermen to sell their catch only at their registered port. Within that port, auction agents, who finance fishermen, require the fishermen to only sell their catch to them, not any other auction agent.
Other researchers also report that fishermen would not go to another port because they would not know the people at the other sites, and therefore would not trust them. Fishermen prefer their assigned port where they have trusted people networks.
This can be a reason why fishermen, when they do use mobile phones, use them to call about when they will arrive in port, not about market prices or which port to go to. They have no choice in port locations or the market price they’ll get there.
Confusing Correlation as Causation
Jensen’s next error is a classic one. He conflates an increase in mobile sales with increases in fish market prices, and an increase in fisherman’s profits. First, while mobile phone sales did increase in India, at the time of Jensen’s research, only fishermen with large, mechanized fishing boats had adopted mobile phones. These trawlers usually fish 20Km or more offshore, well out of range of land-based mobile networks.
Next, while fish market prices increased, there is no evidence it was from mobile phone usage vs. general population or market changes (more people, more wealthy people, more demand for fish, etc). Finally, there is no evidence that fishermen have seen increased profits from increased fish prices. Fishing costs could have risen, driving fish prices up, without any change in underlying profitability.
Using an Anecdote as Evidence
Jensen’s final error is one we’ve all done too. From 5 ports in one particular sub-region he overgeneralizes firstly to all fisheries in Kerala, and makes a giant leap to everywhere in the developing world. Just read his conclusion:
“By improving access to information, ICTs may help poorly functioning markets work better and thereby increase incomes and/or lower consumer prices. In fact, it has become increasingly common to find farmers, fishermen, and other producers throughout the developing world using mobile phones, text messaging, pagers, and the Internet for marketing output.”
Now isn’t that the same conclusion you’ve given to your ICT4D experiments and pilots? That one idea tried in one context could change the entire world? Could it even be immoral for us to announce that our latest ICT4D innovation is going to turn poor communities into vibrant first world economies? Its certainly not good research.