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.”
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.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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