Mobile phones and the price of fish
May 15th, 2007

(Thanks, Rich!)

For years, I have used the reports of fisherman off the coast of India who get SMS messages to determine which port can give them the best price. The Economist reports a more detailed study of this phenomenon (‘The Digital Provide: Information (technology), market performance and welfare in the South Indian fisheries sector’, by Robert Jensen. To be published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2007.)

YOU are a fisherman off the coast of northern Kerala, a region in the south of India. Visiting your usual fishing ground, you bring in an unusually good catch of sardines. That means other fishermen in the area will probably have done well too, so there will be plenty of supply at the local beach market: prices will be low, and you may not even be able to sell your catch. Should you head for the usual market anyway, or should you go down the coast in the hope that fishermen in that area will not have done so well and your fish will fetch a better price? If you make the wrong choice you cannot visit another market because fuel is costly and each market is open for only a couple of hours before dawn–and it takes that long for your boat to putter from one to the next. Since fish are perishable, any that cannot be sold will have to be dumped into the sea.

This, in a nutshell, was the situation facing Kerala’s fishermen until 1997. The result was far from ideal for both fishermen and their customers. In practice, fishermen chose to stick with their home markets all the time. This was wasteful because when a particular market is oversupplied, fish are thrown away, even though there may be buyers for them a little farther along the coast. On average, 5-8% of the total catch was wasted, says Robert Jensen, a development economist at Harvard University who has surveyed the price of sardines at 15 beach markets along Kerala’s coast. On January 14th 1997, for example, 11 fishermen at Badagara beach ended up throwing away their catches, yet on that day there were 27 buyers at markets within 15km (about nine miles) who would have bought their fish. There were also wide variations in the price of sardines along the coast.

But starting in 1997 mobile phones were introduced in Kerala. Since coverage spread gradually, this provided an ideal way to gauge the effect of mobile phones on the fishermen’s behaviour, the price of fish, and the amount of waste. For many years, anecdotes have abounded about the ways in which mobile phones promote more efficient markets and encourage economic activity. One particularly popular tale is that of the fisherman who is able to call several nearby markets from his boat to establish where his catch will fetch the highest price. Mr Jensen’s paper* adds some numbers to the familiar stories and shows precisely how mobile phones support economic growth.


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