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We look: The shop is LED bright, white, full of glass cases of Chinese phones and an empty Samsung booth. Master consultant says most customers come in and declare: I don’t know anything about mobile phones. Twitter recently announced that it will allow up to 10,000 characters “below” the tweet. A man whose name I consistently mishear as Muhammad is supposed to come and start some mysterious generator for us.

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Proximity’s impact work is focused primarily on farming and helping farmers.

​* * *The team I was part of was run by Studio D Radiodurans (or “Studio D” for short), “a research, design, and strategy consultancy,” who have been collaborating for the last two years with Proximity Designs, a Yangon-based social enterprise.

Most farmers grab data on their scratch cards in 1,000 or 3,000 or 5,000 Kyat chunks. The lead farmer mentions Facebook and the others fall in. They sell for about $350 and pump roughly fifty liters of water per minute. But the residual effect of that instability is a lack of incumbency and traditional infrastructure.

If you buy in bulk (although almost nobody does) you can get 2GB of data for 11,900 Myanmar Kyat or about $9.20 USD. He says he uses his smartphone mainly for phone calls, which are still simpler and faster than texting. And Proximity’s solar pumps — launched just last October after years of research and development as part of a joint project with students at the Stanford d.school — are not only beautifully engineered and designed, they’re among the most affordable in the world. The instability significantly increases risk for outside investors and companies. In ethnographic-design research everyone gets a code name. logo and sits with us on stools in the middle of the shop.

Proximity builds hardware products within an impressive four-story warehouse in the industrial South Dagon section of Yangon.

They’ve served over 731,000 rural households as of December 2015—impacting about 3.66 million people. Everyone buys top-up from top-up shops, scratches off complex serial numbers printed in a small font, types them with special network codes into their phone dialers in a way that feels steampunkish, like they’re divining data. Their mantra is to be in the field, get close to the people for whom they are designing, use ethnography to locate “unmet needs,” and iterate through product tests quickly. He brushes his hand aside and says it’s too data hungry. Proximity is unique (and lauded) because they approach their impact work with a “design thinking” mindset. And so there is no incumbent electric giant monopolizing rural areas to fight against solar, there is no incumbent bank which will lobby against bitcoin, there are no expectations about how a computer should work, how a digital book should feel. And so there is a wild and distinct freedom to the feeling of working in places like this. You have seen and lived within a future, and believe—must believe—you can help bring some better version of it to light here. A chance to get things right in a way that we couldn’t or can’t now in our incumbent-laden latticeworks back home. But if he can meet in person, he goes to talk in person. They feel that spending data on Facebook is a worthwhile investment. Except instead of burning calories, they flood fields with water and create food. It’s one of the reasons why a country like Myanmar is just now getting these connections, these devices. We give her the creative code name: Patient Phone Shop Woman. One nephew says he uses Viber to text with friends and family who are outside of the village. The foot-treadle part of the treadle pumps are constructed out of readily available and easily replaceable planks and ropes and are worked like a Stairmaster at the gym. There is, however, instability—in government and currency. His teeth are stained a deep red from all the betel nut he chews. Colleague confers and motorcycle man’s face shifts to shame and dejection as he slinks out. This second mobile-shop manager is extremely patient. Kyaukse is formidable, located in the Mandalay region of the country, with a population of around 700,000 and a number of photo studios, mobile-phone shops, dozens of restaurants and guest houses. But my colleague is disarming in a humble, honest way.

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