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SurTab Tablets and Mobile Phone Technology’s Impact on Development in Haiti

The Haiti Research and Policy Program at the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development concluded the Fall 2013 Dialogue Series with guest Maarten Boute, CEO of SurTab Haiti, the first Android tablet manufacturing company in Haiti. Boute is the former CEO of Digicel Haiti, a mobile phone network provider currently operating in 31 markets across the Caribbean, Central America, and Oceania regions. Digicel has been noted for introducing competition in the wireless industry in these regions.

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, researchers and students joined Boute to articulate the benefits that widely used mobile technology has brought to Haiti, including their impact on social and economic development. From delivering information to school teachers to supporting farmers optimize selling of their goods at market to understanding internal migration after the earthquake, mobile phone technology has rapidly changed socio-political and economic dynamics in Haiti.

Questions posed to Boute during the talk included how has the rapid expansion of mobile phone connectivity in Haiti shaped the development trajectory of the country? How can the increased availability of low price-point mobile phones, tablets and cellular subscriptions support Haiti’s National Strategic Development Plan (Plan Stratégique de Developpement d’Haiti)?

Surtab Tablets being produced in Haiti.

Boute shared his reflections on the dropping price point of mobile phone technology and how it has rapidly changed consumer access to internet and information. While recent figures are not available, as of 2009, Haiti had an estimated population of 9.9 million people and a cell phone penetration rate estimated at 55 percent. Boute described the current application of mobile technologies to a range of socio-political and economic activities in Haiti. One of the most visible applications has been within the political arena, as politicians and members of political parties are using mobile phones to contact and rally supporters, communicate key events and messages, and help constituents find voting stations.

Boute also noted how cell phones have been used to disseminate information to communities, for example, sharing the price of fish and mangos directly with farmers to help them more effectively target their selling strategies and coordination with markets.

How did this come about, and what role did Digicel play in this expansion? When Digicel Haiti entered the mobile market in Haiti, Boute said, phone packages were dominated by high rates charged on a monthly basis and a centralized system of selling plans in main offices. Digicel’s success came when the business model shifted to address consumption patterns of lower income clients who could not afford monthly payments. Instead of the traditional monthly packages, Digicel created a decentralized pay-as-you-go system, allowing users to buy credits through a network of close to 60,000 vendors located outside of a central retail location. By changing the company structure to reward local disbursed sellers rather than central stores, Boute noted that it enabled a fundamental change to the organizational structure that dramatically increased the mobile phone user base.

As a result of this new business strategy, more than half of Haitians now have access to mobile phones, with that rate estimated to be increasingly rapidly. Initially, Digicel chose to subsidize their costs while incentivizing users with these new payment options and easy access. Now, with expanded services, it’s one of the most profitable businesses in Haiti.

But mobile phones are only the first step. The new challenge that Boute identified is to find a way to get tablets and mobile data systems at a price point to increase the number of users. To that aim, he has launched a new tablet assembly company in Haiti, producing low-cost tablets. Although more than half of the SurTab products made in Haiti are exported to be sold in countries such as Kenya, Boute also noted there is still a huge potential for rapid increased access in Haiti. In fact, he said that if SurTab can produce a tablet at a low enough price point, the digital information revolution would immediately reach new portions of the Haitian population. This could render most laptops and desktop computers irrelevant and enable younger generations to reach greater levels of accessibility to information and communications. According to the most recent estimates from the national statistics bureau, more than 44 percent of the population is under the age of 18.

Boute also referred to new programs that are bringing new tablet-based learning tools into the classrooms, including those aimed at teacher training across Haiti. He suggested how rapidly those types of programs could expand if the technology became affordable for the education system. Boute discussed with students initiatives, like ones being designed at the Earth Institute, to help monitor delivery and effectiveness of social service programs (read about the use of mobile phones to test student literacy and numeracy in Port-à-Piment).

Boute concluded by suggesting that mobile phones, specifically smart phones, should be a key component of the strategic development plan for both monitoring and aid coordination. And more importantly, mobile phones should be used as a fundamental component of an information sharing strategy, for example, the exchange of commerce information and delivery of social services. Boute agreed to return to the Earth Institute in a year to review the progress of SurTab and continue the discussion around the impact of tablet technology in Haiti.

The Fall 2013 Haiti Dialogue Series brings together Haitian policy makers, private sector entrepreneurs, scholars, and practitioners with researchers and students at Columbia University to discuss the design and implementation of Haiti’s National Strategic Development Plan (PSDH). The Dialogue Series aims to encourage critical analysis and reflection on a range of topics that underpin Haiti’s development objectives.

For more information please visit the Haiti Research and Policy Program and the CIESIN Haiti Geo-Portal.

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