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.

Group of diggers at the Kalimbi site in DR Congo - Photo: FairPhone

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.”

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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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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