The Little Box

Posted September 24, 2008

These are the thoughts that keep me up at night.

Imagine that every village in Africa had a small box. Each day, the people in the village would tell the box what they had to sell, and what they needed: food, tools, livestock, and services. Some days, the box would travel with one of the village children to the local school. Other days, it would travel with an adult to the local market.

When the little boxes come close to each other at the school, or in the market, they exchange information. While the children are learning, and while the adults are working, the boxes are finding opportunities -- discovering who has corn to sell, who can service a tractor, who wants to buy a chicken. In the blink of an eye, in the casual passing of strangers on the road, the boxes are silently comparing and discovering the inventory of entire villages.

A match is found, and the boxes chime. The strangers greet each other and negotiate the exchange.

Now, imagine that a school teacher is trusted to carry information from all of the villages her school serves. At a small monthly gathering of educators, the inventory of hundreds of villages is compared, and the network grows beyond the local community.

At a regional market, a vendor sells mobile telephone time.

Through the mobile phone network, the little box connects to a central market. In an instant, the inventory of the whole nation is available to the village, and the village is available to the nation.

Through the network, the little box connects to a bank. The little box understands different currencies, and can conduct transactions around the world.

Today, that little box can be mass produced for under $200 -- it's roughly equivalent to an iPhone. In ten years, it could be made, distributed, and sold for under $10, a price point that makes it accessible to billions of people and millions of villages around the world.

What keeps me from sleeping is the knowledge that everything described above is possible, with today's technology. That's exciting. It gets my blood pumping.

It makes me want to do something.

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