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FairPhone in DR Congo
FairPhone in DR Congo
Varinia Bernau

BARCELONA - Bas van Abel brought a novel idea to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The 35-year-old Dutch entrepreneur is currently at work, with ten others, on the first "FairTrade" smartphone – a phone that will contain no gold mined in war zones, will not be assembled in a soulless Chinese factory, and will not deliver fat profits to a big greedy company.

Sound naïve? Van Abel, who initiated the project two years ago, knows that his FairPhone won’t save the world, but says its aim is to help bring about change – to show what is possible with the right effort and idea.

The Dutch non-profit organization behind the FairPhone initiative wants to raise awareness about the fact that people are interested in the latest, smartest phones on the market but rarely in the conditions under which they are produced. They were certain that if they tried to spread the word with a classic campaign, they would achieve nothing more than to annoy their target audience, which would quickly interest. Instead, they thought, why not actually produce a phone – show manufacturers and consumers that it could be done.

Van Abel got a taste of how challenging this would be last fall, when conflict in eastern Congo flared up again. With the help of organizations, politicians and managers, the Dutch developers had identified a mine that could provide tin for their FairPhone. "We were faced with a choice: either we go home, locals lose their jobs and we contribute to making the situation even less stable, or we stay and do our small bit to help stabilize matters,” says van Abel.

They stayed because they knew that the mine wasn’t paying any money to the two warring parties. They knew that children worked in the mine – but they believed that it was better than letting the Congo fend for itself and simply getting their tin from Australia. Three weeks ago, van Abel and 12 others from the Conflict Free Tin Initiative visited the Congo. He recalls how astounded the Congolese were that there were not only do-gooders like him in the group but also representatives from Blackberry and Motorola.

The war front is some 20 km from the mine, so the future is far from guaranteed. But so far the Initiative has brought 1.5 million euros worth of business, only a tiny part of that from the Dutch FairPhone developers – they only need about 10 kilos of tin for the 10,000 phones scheduled to be on the market in September.

Transparent – literally

In two weeks, the Dutch are on their way to southern China – to Shenzhen where China’s big technology companies Huawei and ZTE are located, along with a number of manufacturing companies that assemble for western firms. They are going to visit five companies, van Abel says, to find one that doesn’t resemble the sort of place where iPhones are put together: huge factories where migrant workers work in shifts around the clock, far from home.

Over 6000 customers have already registered for the first FairPhones via the group’s website. The phones will be sold 300 euros. Mobile phone providers are also showing an interest, and Dutch provider KPN has already ordered 1,000 units. That’s not a lot for a company like KPN, but it’s a huge show of confidence, particularly as van Abel doesn’t have any prototypes to show.

Van Abel and his team are also negotiating with Vodafone and O2. For the entrepreneur, this interest is proof that consumers still have power. But he also knows that this type of consumer isn’t yet widespread. "Our customers are the ones that think about where the things they buy come from. They don’t just want a fancy phone.”

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Dutch entrepreneur and FairPhone founder Bas van Abel - Photo: Jonne Seijdel

The FairPhone is transparent so people can see exactly what’s inside. It will have room for two SIM cards, so that people don’t need two separate phones for the office and personal use. Also, in developing countries, people frequently have two SIM cards from two separate providers because networks are often unreliable.

During the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, van Abel met with the makers of open source software Ubuntu and Firefox. The FairPhone will run on Android – the open source mobile operating system that Google makes available free to mobile phone manufacturers like Samsung.

Google gets a cut from every app downloaded on Android-operated devices. Is that fair? Does somebody offering fair smartphones really want to work with a company that has the reputation of hoarding personal data and that makes survival difficult for small competitors through its sheer size? "We don’t want to take any risks at the start,” van Abel says, defending the choice of Android. If the FairPhone doesn’t work, or there are hardly any apps for it, nobody is going to be interested in it. Things can always be done differently later, he says; bringing about change is about taking one little step at a time.

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