During his research in Cameroon in fall 2016, Max Smith ’18 met people using cellphones in innovative ways to improve their lives. A security guard made money charging cellphones at the remote cell tower he patrols. Farmers used cellphones to check crop prices to ensure they got a fair deal from buyers.
Smith was born in Paris to journalists who took him on their travels across Africa. He is now fascinated by the rapid growth of cellphone use in Cameroon, where the number of service subscribers more than tripled between 2007 and 2015.
“Cellphones are connecting people of Cameroon to the outside world now,” Smith said. “Seventy-eight of the 100 people I surveyed said they can’t live without their phones.”
Smith’s field research on cellphones was conducted during his semester last fall in the West African country. Smith’s term for his subject is “glocalization,” in which Cameroonians adapt global technology to local needs. Cameroon transitioned suddenly from a nation where landlines were available only to the elite to a mobile phone economy open to every Cameroonian. Now a secondhand cellphone can cost less than a jar of jam there.
“The streets there are literally buzzing with sounds of cellphones and the advertisements of vendors selling phones,” said Smith, who plans to return to Africa this summer to continue his research.