On the Importance of Price Information to Fishers and to Economists: Revisiting Mobile Phone Use Among Fishers in Kerala

Janaki Srinivasan, Jenna Burrell

Abstract


In this article, we revisit a study that has become canonical in ICTD, economist Robert Jensen’s study of mobile phone use in fishing markets in north Kerala. Jensen found that the use of mobile phones to share market price information made fish markets more efficient, while also improving producer and consumer welfare. Based on our own ethnographic case study in the region, we examine the historical, geographic, and political-economic conditions in which Jensen’s findings hold. We show that north Kerala’s coastal geography and prevalent credit relationships make it a special case of fish trading where fishers had the flexibility to optimize profits by selling at different markets. Fishers’ ability to leverage mobile phones for sharing price information derived from this flexibility. Moreover, we found a broader definition of welfare at play that went beyond increased income. Those working in various roles in Kerala’s fishing industry emphasized a spectrum of benefits from phone use, including maintaining trade relations, facilitating coordination, and protecting themselves during times of risk, vulnerability, or emergency. We suggest that parsimonious models, such as Jensen’s, can generate blind spots, which are problematic when such studies are used to draw broader conclusions about policy and technology design.

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