How your old phone can change lives

May 03, 2017  |  By Nienke Pieters, Netherlands

How your old phone can change lives

Photo : Oxfam / Aimee Brown

“Quality in education gives people the chance to break free from the cycle of poverty and is the key that will allow many other Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved.” (United Nations, 2015)

Education for everyone. It was one of the eight Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 as well as one of the subsequent Sustainable Development Goals set in 2015. Goals that should help to reduce the gaps between First and Third World countries. But what if that gap has only grown bigger over the years? With the coming of the internet we might have unintentionally turned this into reality. The internet, and in particular the devices in our hands, give us the possibility to gain any knowledge, at anytime, anywhere we want. It gives those who do have access to it an advantage on those who don’t. In this perspective it might seem impossible to get the Third World to keep up with the first world, while it so simply could.

First World involvement in Global Development Goals

Media shows us commercials of a starving boy in the sub-Saharan, asking us to donate money. But an instant later we forget about it. Not that we don’t care, we are simply not there. So what if, instead of making people donate, we invest more in projects where Third and First World citizens get more involved with each other? What if we could directly make a difference by giving those children the possibility to learn whatever they want and even to stay in contact with us. What if you could teach a child in Africa via your phone face to face?  

E-waste recycling

According to the New York Times (2013) Americans replace their cell phones every 22 months, junking some 150 million old phones in 2010 alone. Although there are no specific statistics on how many functioning phones were thrown away or simply put in a bedroom drawer as a “backup phone”, there must have been a certain amount that could have been reused. With people buying new phones every two years the phone recycling industry is booming, yet this booming business is an unhealthy business:

“In India, young boys smash computer batteries with mallets to recover cadmium, toxic flecks of which cover their hands and feet as they work. Women spend their days bent over baths of hot lead, “cooking” circuit boards so they can remove slivers of gold inside. The World Health Organization reports that even a low level of exposure to lead, cadmium and mercury (all of which can be found in old phones) can cause irreversible neurological damage and threaten the development of a child”  (New York Times, 2013)

Suddenly throwing away, or selling that old phone doesn’t feel right anymore. A new gadget was not necessary in the first place, but even if you want a new one it is much better to recycle it. Recycling your phone by donating. “While mobile phones in general are widespread, there are few smartphones in sub-Saharan Africa: only 4% of Ethiopians and Ugandans have them” sais Poushter (2016). Donating your phone to these people can change their lives.


If we look at the schools of Third World countries we see big classes consisting of all ages, with one tutor for all subjects, lack of books or equipment they simply cannot afford. Having connection to the internet will give them all this practically for free. One connection that grants free access to almost all the knowledge that exists in a split of a second, making us wiser with every article we read, every video we watch and every podcast we listen to.

Providing these primary and high schools with our ‘old’ mobile phones gives children the possibility to learn what they want or need to learn. Education is not only about teaching children how to write or count, it is also about developing yourself in your own unique way, creating your own value. With every bit of knowledge at their fingertips, we give them the freedom to learn about anything they would like to learn. Phones with internet gives them the chance to develop their society and themselves. To learn in their own pace, look for their own tutors and gives them the opportunity to get in contact with the First World. To tell their own individual story and bringing it directly to you. Showing the developed countries different perspectives and creating a better view of their situation will hopefully result in more understanding and affection towards each other.


Companies can play a big role in this idea. Big telecom providers will be needed to install internet in a  school or another public area where people can gather to use it. Google already tried this out in 2009 as well as several other companies after. Companies could invest in a solar panels so they have the ability to recharge. It is their chance to show that their company cares about the less fortunate and helping them out.


With just this simple idea we can kill two birds with one stone. By recycling and reusing our ‘old’ functioning devices we reduce e-waste and so we contribute in achieving the 12th Development Goal (Responsible Consumption & Production).

By subsequently donating those devices to local schools and libraries in the sub-Saharan we bring quality into education by giving children access to the biggest information resource in the world: ‘the internet’. With which they can develop themselves and their surroundings so they get the possibility to reduce the gap between first- and third world countries themselves.



Acaroglu, L. (2013, May 4). Where do old cellphones go to die. In New York Times. Retrieved March 19, 2017, from:

Pejovic, V. Johnson, L. D. Zheleva, M. Belding, E. Parks, L. Stam, V. G. (2012). The Bandwidth Divide: Obstacles to Efficient Broadband Adoption in Rural Sub-Saharan Africa. Retrieved March 19, 2017, from:

Poushter, J. (2016, February 22). Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage Continues to Climb in Emerging Economies. Retrieved March 22, 2017, from: 

Nicholson, C. (2009, February 1). Bringing the Internet to Remote African Villages. In New York Times. Retrieved March 19, 2017 from:

Rice-Oxley, M. (2016, July 25). Can the internet reboot Africa? In The Guardian. Retrieved March 19, 2017, from:

United Nations (2015). Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from:

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