The Epic of the Nuru Phone: I hear the slow but quickening click-click of cell phone buttons. I see eyes squinting at tiny screens. I smell the fresh plastic wrapping new electronics. I hear the beep of email alerts. I see the data streaming in from the field before my eyes. I feel the rubberized keypad through thumbs rubbed raw. All of this is more than I could have hoped for three months ago

Nuru employees, whose hands from a lifetime of farming are still rough and calloused, with chipped fingernails and dirt-dyed palms, have just leapfrogged the PC. They are sending email, checking news, and listening to MP3s. They are reading the Bible, recording the radio, and devouring Wikipedia kilobyte by kilobyte. They are passing through 256-bit encryption to access organization data and to submit reports and surveys. They are sending photos to supervisors to line up with survey data. They are using their 9MB non-expandable phones as thin clients, sending personal photos to 7GB searchable Gmail accounts. And all of this is being done in real time from the field, miles from electricity or land lines.

In February, I boarded this crazy train. At the time, I worked for Nuru International as the Healthcare Program Manager. Nuru is an NGO that fights extreme poverty holistically by training local leaders and acting like a general contractor of other organizations; we had 5 programs, 60-some employees trying to serve and monitor 5000 people in rural Kenya. We had been doing this (poorly) with paper, pencils and a lot of time in Excel. Being holistic, we had data on loans, health, education, farms, water quality, GIS and so on, and so on. All of this was on paper, typed into different Excel documents on different computers, and most of this data was never seen again.

It was in this environment that I convinced our ex-Spec Ops Marine CEO to let me have $5000 of Nuru’s money and three months of time away from the Healthcare program to address our data needs. I’d heard about people doing this with Droids, Palms, iPhones and laptops. But I had never seen a robust data system with cheap phones, and that’s the budget I had. I had a laptop taste on a cell phone budget.

I’m a nerd, but the last time I had the opportunity to make a syntax error was high school; I couldn’t program my way into a solution, I needed to find something already made. I had looked at some very good tech that used the SMS protocol, FrontlineSMS, calculated that we were too poor even for SMS. $0.03 a pop adds up when you’re doing massive and persistent data collection. Nuru projects need to pay for themselves within five years, at which point the Kenyan staff takes it over from the Western; we need to be very careful when adding a monthly cost that will never go away.

I discovered the answer to the software question was a most definitive Google. Google Forms did what I needed it to do: it could send data to the cloud, easily and cheaply. And plus, with Google Apps, it had a secure login. And mail. And docs. And sites. And, I mean after all, it’s Google! And, another added benefit, it’s free for NGO’s. Yup. Free. And thanks to Safaricom, the local cell provider, there was GPRS internet just about everywhere, even very rural Kuria (wouldn’t it be nice if maybe Verizon, Sprint or AT&T could do that in the US?)

I looked around for the cheapest possible phone that had a decent web browser (i.e. came with/could install Opera Mini) and found the Nokia 1680: GPRS, VGA camera, Java, and a whopping 9MB of onboard memory. And best of all, it undercut smart phones by about an order of magnitude (coming in at just under $40, after some wheeling and dealing in Nairobi). But after spending the moolah, I discovered the Great Tragedy. The data cable is unsupported by Nokia. I could not clone them; I would have to configure them manually. And so I entered the horse-latitudes of my project. I sat in my room, typing in URLs and email login info into phone after phone after phone while listening to “The Brothers Karamazov” on MP3 to pass the time. And pass it did, for I almost finished the book.

The final part of this tale is the grand task of transforming a nice idea to a working idea. Training. Training people who, before we came, had never even used phones before. Farmers. And let me tell you what, it was a wonderful and terrible thing.

Everyone in the US knows something about computers. Even your grandparents. But I had to start from scratch. What is data? How do you weigh it? How do I check on my M-B’s (I failed to teach them the slang pronunciation ‘megs’)? Where is Google (the double ‘O’ doesn’t quite get pronounced here)? To give you an example, the following is a direct quotation during a training: “Press select. No that’s down. Press select. No that’s down. This one is select. Press select. No that’s down.”

Despite the infuriating pace, I have seen wonders. There is nothing quite like somebody’s smile after they receive the first email of their life. I was a magician, showing them arcane secrets of “The Internet,” and seeing looks of reverent awe. I listened to the complaints of those who finished their 40MB data plan by nothing more than reading inconceivable amounts of Wikipedia on a 128-pixel screen. They don’t have libraries or bookstores here and the poor, it seems, are hungry for more than food.

Today I played helpdesk. I announced to the staff that I’d be there all day for training and troubleshooting. But I was alone most of the day. The phones were working. Employees were around the office, but they were now teaching each other better than I could (my Swahili sucks). Sixty rural Kenyan farmers, most of whom have never touched a computer or owned a phone, are doing with $40 candy-bar Nokias what most Americans can’t do with an Android.

One of my students I’ll call Gati sent me the following email today: “May God bless nuru to continue forever.” She went from struggling to feed her family last year to sending me a casual, upbeat email from her hut on her phone today. Without even meaning to, Nokia, Google, Safaricom and Opera by means of Nuru have worked together to create opportunities for people like Gati to pull themselves out of extreme poverty.