By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. Each week, I'll sit down with an author or a writer behind one of the stories covered in a previous weekday edition for a casual conversation about what they wrote.
Fully 40 percent of smartphone sales in Africa in the last quarter of 2019 were with a company called Transsion, which since it first came on to the continent in 2008 has surged to dominate the market. Its market cap is $7.14 billion, and it moved 137 million mobile phones in 2019. The company carved off such a big slice of the African market by understanding what consumers needed most there, namely easy versatility with SIM cards. To avoid costly fees and get the best coverage in spottily-covered area, many need more than one SIM card. So, in 2008, Transsion became the first to sell a phone that could have two SIMs well before competitors like Nokia, and today they sell up to four-SIM phones. They’ve also built an in-house designed camera that has better exposure on darker skin, an area where their rivals have disappointingly lagged.
Rest of World takes a really cool angle, focusing on the places that don’t get mainstream coverage and the stories that don’t typically get told. I’m a big fan.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Rest of World is like nothing that I've really seen online. You guys are in a class of your own. I really enjoy the work. It's a fairly new site. What went into the creation of it, and what's the goal of this item as a whole?
Sophie Schmidt, the founder, had this idea from the beginning to build something for a very different kind of audience. “Rest of World” comes from this ridiculous and tone deaf kind of corporate lingo that many global business operations use. It's "Rest of World" used to denote everyone else, and it generally represents billions and billions of people. The idea was to have a publication that's looking at the impact of technology in the Rest of World, the non-Western world.
Obviously the pandemic has changed things, but the larger goal is to find these stories where people are innovating, adapting, and a fascinating use of technology. It's surprising. It's weird, bringing those stories in a narrative forum to various kinds of audiences. A lot of conversation around the rest of the world and technology is just like, "Well, they're not there yet," or like, "They don't get it," or like, "Oh, look, they're also using YouTube and they're also using Facebook," right? Well, the reality is very different. People, they are using technology in very different ways.
You had a story about Transsion, this Chinese company, but it's the largest in Africa, and it just gets at this really cool angle about how mobile usage is different across the world. And it wasn't until reading it I realized I was so tired of reading about Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google.
That's another thing, you have a company that has a market cap of like $7.1 billion and almost a quarter billion in profits last year. And very few people here in the U.S. would have heard of it. They have, I think, three categories of phones, each one is very popular, and they're a big competitor with big players like Nokia and Samsung. It feels like in our DNA, we started looking into how this phone company became a phenomenon in a continent so far away, and the thing they actually did was they listened to what customers really wanted in that continent.
One story that I enjoyed was about South Korea and the folks there who are out of employment, out of education, out of that. You had a story this past week about internet arranged marriages and what not. You really are kind of covering the gamut.
When you think about how people use technology, it's really weird the kind of things you're going to find. I mean, honjok is one example, of course. There was a lot that went into bringing the technology out of that story. There's this sub culture of honjok in South Korea, but what we didn't know was that there's this whole economy behind the whole thing. The way we thought it'd be interesting to tell the story is in the last six months everybody had to sort of figure out this life of being by yourself, and ordering everything through an app, like, "Oh my God, how am I going to do this?" And here you have this community that has been doing it for years and doing it well. And it's worked. There's things like that.
My other favorite story we've done is the story about Okash, which basically they send text messages to everybody on your contact list when you fall behind on the loan payments. This is micro-lending now. It's wild when you think about it. When you think about the culture, where social shaming is such a huge thing. You tweet at someone here, it's sort of like, "Hey, you're trolling me," or something. Somewhere else, it takes a completely different meaning when you're trying to do things like that. And I think trying to show to readers that when the app was built, you considered the ramifications of how it was built, who was going to use it, all the things that went into building that app.
Your background is an international reporting, I would love to hear more about how you came to Rest of World?
I came here as a student for college and for grad school, I was working at The Atlantic and then after that at the Washington Post and mostly focusing on national security and international reporting, I covered Afghanistan and went home to Nepal to cover a lot of the migrant worker situation there. I was at Buzzfeed, after Buzzfeed expanded its news coverage, and was building the foreign desk; I moved to London to help cover foreign news from there. In 2018, after I had done a brief stint at Roads & Kingdoms, which was supported by Anthony Bourdain and after his passing, I decided that I would go home, back to Nepal, after 15 or 16 years. And I was running a national newspaper there.
That's when I got in touch with Sophie and Rest of World, and I came back here. But, basically, my time working in the U.S. taught me that a lot of the news that we do, for whatever country around the world, was told for an American audience, in a language that an American audience understand. That's changing, like obviously this year as we talk about people of color and representation, letting them see how stories are being told. But, to me, oftentimes that meant completely changing the way you describe something, cutting things that are important you just don't have space for it. I saw that happen with some of my own stories. So, as an international person myself, being able to have a platform where you are really emphasizing the stories of the Rest of World, but also really working with people in the rest of the world to tell those stories was really important. We publish Turkish writers, African writers. We've had a lot of writers, reporters from India do stories. I think engaging those folks to sort of tell their own stories and really not limiting it to an American or a Western audience and telling stories for this audience is what I found super exciting about this thing.
Yeah, I love it. Again, I really enjoyed the site. It's part of my rotation now, but I think one thing that I really like about it is that it's very obvious that the writers are not wearing parachutes, that these are folks who are familiar with what they're writing about and have definitely reported on this kind of stuff before. I just wanted to say up front like that is of the very coolest things about the site.
Thank you. I mean, that matters to me as an editor and everybody else who works here as well because we often see international reporting as either a lot of Western educated folks who become foreign correspondents in various places, or you end up getting like stringers and fixers to do the work for you. Right?
We're all familiar with that stuff. I've worn both of those hats on various occasions. So, when Sophie brought this idea to me and I realized, wow, we really have an opportunity to build a network of writers, a network of reporters. You know, we're trying to do something similar with art as well. We're hiring photographers around the world. We're not flying people from here, we're trying to find local photographers, who've come through their own system. We're trying to find illustrators for our stories, not just Americans, but illustrators around the world. So, it's something that we hope to continue and I hope it shows in the kind of stories we do and how they end up on the site.
Do you have a favorite story that you've done?
Let's see, trying to think of one favorite story. Every week we're publishing. I mean, I really liked the first story that Jina Moore did from Sudan. I think it was a very complicated story, it was breaking down how the internet shut downs worked. I really liked how we did the Muslim dating app story last week, for example.
Here's the thing, when you talk about dating apps, it's seen from one way, right? Everybody thinks in terms of Tinder. And then, what we found in this particular story was people are using technology, they are technologically savvy — whether it's Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or this entrepreneur in London who's serving the Muslim community there — and they're doing it by keeping a lot of the traditional values in mind because that's important for the audience, right. You can't take Tinder to Saudi Arabia and still use it. You'd have to tinker with so many things. I thought that story was an interesting Rest of World story.
Another story I really liked, we published this huge piece on Magh Mela, this religious fair that happens in India every five or six years. And it was basically how authorities are using technology to manage this crowd, a crowd of millions and millions of people actually, and it was more than just surveillance. I thought that was fascinating, looking at this remote part of India that sees millions of Hindu devotees come from all over the region, and how authorities are using advanced tech to monitor everything there. That was really fascinating, with great photos as well.
I'm always looking to get news from outside of where I'm typically getting it, and this has just been kind of a one stop shop. What do folks have to look forward to and where can folks find you? And where can folks find the Rest of World?
Folks will continue to find these fascinating, weird, surprising stories from Rest of World countries. That's our goal. And I think one of the primary goals — from a tech reporting perspective — is we almost always see tech reporting being focused on business stories, like products, CEOs, funding, and like the aperture for tech stories is very narrow or there's no coverage at all. We want to be in that space where we can tell compelling stories about the impact on humanity, which I think people will find surprising. There's not a lot of these stories that get covered every day in the publications that they're already familiar with.
We have a really good newsletter that comes out weekly. Folks should subscribe to our newsletter. We're on twitter @restofworld. We're on Facebook, we're on LinkedIn. We'd love to hear from readers as well, what they think about our stories and how we can do better.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.