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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.

Earlier, he said to us, lelthamar asit—Like any real farmer, I know the land. And the fourth floor performs quality-control checks on water storage sacks that balloon up like carnival attractions. Everyone installs apps using Zapya, an app-sharing app. And these emergent economies have one colossal advantage over the entrenched and techno-gluttonous west: There is little incumbency. He stands in the middle of the shop with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and stares at the four female employees. He’s wearing Vietnam War era American infantry helmet, high-waist khakis, a leather jacket. I whisper to my joyful colleague, Uhm, hey man, you gotta tell him to wait outside. She points to an empty booth along the wall, shrugs, says, Day off.

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What follows are a series of diary entries and notes culled from our interviews. We’re seated atop a raised platform in a makeshift shed in the middle of one of his rice fields. Everything around us is bathed in a golden glow of light reflecting off unharvested paddy. The drive takes three to six hours, mostly on the wrong side of pockmarked roads. Cell towers sprout wildly — matte-steel contraptions in the middle of rice plots running off their own electricity, their electronic brains housed in small, padlocked refrigerated boxes behind fences that surround the towers. Micro dots of chill within otherwise vast landscapes of broil. We broke off from the rest of the crew and went rogue when we realized we were hungry for context, hungry to talk to the people who sell the phones to the farmers.

The interview teams were composed of three or four people: a translator, a photographer, a notetaker, and sometimes a facilitator. It’s only late morning but the sun outside burns atomic hot. It’s just big enough for a half-kilometer strip of restaurants and shops, a small market, and a tiny hotel. We learned about this mobile shop from Farmer Number Eight. We reach the shop in the town of Kyaukse without helmets on the backs of motorcycles.

They’ve served over 731,000 rural households as of December 2015—impacting about 3.66 million people.

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

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A design ethnographer is someone who studies how culture and technology interact. The value of their work is not just in impacting farmers, but connecting them to the world at large. We see and hear trucks with jerry-rigged amps and speakers blasting political songs at an almost constant clip.

A common mistake in building products is to base them on around how a technology might be adopted. While Proximity has mastered hardware and rural relationships, the company doesn’t have much experience with software. Owns his house—a hut, really—with a dark dirt floor and beautifully textured bamboo thatch walls that let in soft shafts of afternoon light. He has kind eyes, and an open face, not like Farmer Number Two who felt lost, tormented, didn’t want to be a farmer but was pushed into being a farmer. The village still lacks electricity although they’ve pooled funds and a dozen newly planted metal-power poles dot the fields, waiting to be wired up. Farmer Number Ten tells us he used to use radio for news but no more. Other news apps—like one called TZ—use too much data. He uses Facebook mostly at night when the internet is fastest, and cheapest. The screen is scratched and small but everything works. Five minutes later my colleague finishes translating and the mobile shop owner laughs and says, “No.” Nobody gets paid to install apps. Nine out of ten people who come into the shop want Facebook.

The villages were often without running water or electricity, but they buzzed with newly minted cell towers and strong 3G signals. Almost all of the farmers we spoke with were Facebook users. How they used Facebook was not dissimilar to how many of us in the West see and think of Twitter: as a source of news, a place where you can follow your interests. But the more we probe, the less justifiable the Samsung premium becomes. The Myanmar telecommunications industry was wholly government controlled until recently. Five years ago you had one choice: Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT). It’s just my hyper-talkative Myanmar colleague and me. Then stare some more after another staff delivers them.

The majority, however, didn’t see the social platform as a place to be particularly social or to connect with and stay up to date on comings and goings within their villages. Has a great head of hair and an 8-year-old daughter. A farmer can now choose from MPT or Telenor or Oredoo. In ethnographic design-research parlance this is an ad-hoc interview, i.e., unplanned. We’re taken across the street, upstairs into a dark room.

If you buy in bulk (although almost nobody does) you can get 2GB of data for 11,900 Myanmar Kyat or about .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.

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