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A Call For Fair Phones And Conflict-Free Tech

The Fairphone.
Courtesy of Fairphone
The Fairphone.
Bas van Abel, at right in the blue coat, visits the production partner, Guohong, in China in 2013.
/ Courtesy of Fairphone
Courtesy of Fairphone
Bas van Abel, at right in the blue coat, visits the production partner, Guohong, in China in 2013.

Despite his serene demeanor, Bas van Abel once got so furious, he smashed his 11-year-old's Nintendo DS. It wasn't his son's fault. It was the toy: Van Abel couldn't get it open.

An advocate of open design and a prominent member of the global maker community, van Abel lives by the motto "If you can't open it, you don't own it."

His fixation on understanding what's behind the objects we use every day extends beyond design to the sourcing of their components. And, after learning about the use of conflict minerals — tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold — to manufacture smartphones, the Dutch designer-turned-entrepreneur founded Fairphone, a company that sells conflict-free smartphones.

The mining and trading of these conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has helped finance the warring groups in the country's bloody civil war.

"It's such a paradox," he says. "Phones are what connect everyone, and yet it is the most disconnected object. It's so personal, but we know nothing about it."

In spite of the 36-year-old's wide grin and laid-back style, his voice turns grave when he starts talking about Fairphone's mission to show large mobile companies that the production chain is not too complicated for transparency.

No Good Guys Or Bad Guys, Just An Alternative

The key, he believes, is to prove there's a market for fair tech. "Companies won't change if they don't have an incentive to, unless the costumers ask for it," he says. In its first year, the Amsterdam-based company sold 25,000 Android smartphones for $450 each.

Fairphones feature an open design and are easy to repair with spare parts available for purchase online. While owners might feel morally superior to their friends with iPhones, van Abel thinks the point is not to cast blame but to provide alternatives.

"We are not the good guys. Nokia and Apple are not the bad guys. It's way more complex than that," he says.

Van Abel likes pondering moral issues. As a teenager in Utrecht, he flirted with the idea of studying theology. Instead, he chose art school, before realizing he craved more structure and moved on to technical engineering.

After graduation, he landed a programming job in e-commerce that was high-paying but also soul-sucking. "I knew if I stayed there I would end up hating my life," he says.

He left to join Waag Society, a nonprofit media lab developing technology, art and science for social innovation. As head of Waag's Open Design Lab, he founded one of Europe's first Fab labs, a workshop for digital personal fabrication; created an open-source restaurant, Instructables; and worked on projects that ranged from teaching kids to build their own MP3 player to helping make $50 3-D-printed prosthetic legs in Indonesia.

He never imagined himself as an entrepreneur, but when a friend from ActionAid asked for help designing a campaign around conflict minerals in 2010, van Abel had an epiphany.

"It was obvious! We had to give people an alternative, so we had to make a phone," he says.

He makes the rest sound like a walk in the park: He flew to DRC and found a mine where profits didn't go to warlords, visited China and chose a factory to produce his phone and then launched a crowd-funding campaign. The goal was to pre-sell 5,000 phones; in three weeks, he had sold 10,000 and, within a month, raised $3.5 million.

The first 25,000 Fairphones were sold in 2013. A new batch of 30,000 is going on sale this month and a new design is expected in 2015. Van Abel hopes to boost production to 250,000 phones a year.

The initiative has been praised by NGOs and politicians; the EU invited Fairphone to provide input on a possible law for responsible sourcing in conflict regions, and the OECD has consulted him about industry best practices.

Even large corporations are starting to pay attention to the small project. "The woman in charge of corporate responsibility for a big Japanese tech company recently told me that her boss walked into her office, slammed a Fairphone on her desk and said, 'How come we didn't think of this before?' " he says.

A Phone's Limited Power For World Peace

Critics, however, are skeptical about whether the Fairphone will live up to its name.

"Even with all of the support and media attention, 'fair tech' in and of itself will not be enough to propel this to the forefront," says Francis Sideco, senior mobile and IT analyst at IHS, a business consultancy firm. "Ultimately, what it will come down to is if it does everything that a consumer will expect it to be able to do."

So far, reviews have been mostly positive, noting that the overall performance is nothing extraordinary while praising its dual SIM slot, removable battery and unscratchable screen.

Others think calling it "fair" is an overstatement. "The miners' working conditions in the DRC cannot be called fair compared to the standards in Chile or Europe [for tin] or Brazil or Australia [for tantalum]," says Sebastian Jekutsch, of the Forum of Computer Scientists for Social Responsibility.

Van Abel couldn't agree more.

"We should get criticized," he says, acknowledging that the materials may be conflict-free but working conditions are far from ideal. "This is work in progress. Our purpose is to get this conversation started."

Looking ahead, van Abel has no intention of becoming the next Nokia. Rather, his main goal is to show industry giants that a transparent and fairer supply chain is possible and that consumers really want it.

"This is about changing the minds of people, more than trying to solve the war in Congo," he acknowledges. "You can't do that with just a phone."

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Laura Secorun Palet