A Glimpse Inside the ‘Human-Brokered’ Digital Markets of Rural Solomon Islands

  • January 10, 2022

  • Honiara, Solomon Islands

This is a guest blog written by anthropologists Stephanie and Geoffrey Hobbis who have extensively researched mobile phone usage trends amongst rural Solomon Islanders. Their work provides valuable insights into human behavior around Digital Financial Services.


What do digital financial services look like when key digital channels, such as the Internet, ATMs or mobile phones, are not readily available? Or when they are restricted in their use, because of limited telecommunication networks or cash reserves to pay for associated costs?

During our research in Solomon Islands, we met Emily, a married woman in her mid-thirties living in rural Malaita Province. Emily uses her mobile phone, above all, as a flashlight. When she makes calls, or picks up a call, it is to stay in touch with her family who is spread across the South Pacific archipelago. Of the 18 numbers Emily has saved in her phone’s contact list, 15 live away from their rural Malaitan homes. Some left because of marriage but often also to participate in the formal economy, for example, to work at the tuna cannery in Noro, Western Province.

In her day-to-day life, Emily is a mother and a gardener. She does not have a steady cash income. The crops that she grows are for subsistence, to meet her family’s basic daily needs. When Emily needs cash to pay school fees or to purchase groceries, she often relies on the family network in her contact list for support. This is how she got her phone as well, as a gift from her sister who lives in the country’s capital and urban core, Honiara, by land and sea an at least 14-hour trip from Emily’s home.

When we interviewed Emily, she had only received one call in the past two weeks. Her brother had reached out to give her a heads-up about money he was sending to her. The money would travel to Emily in the pocket of another villager, who was about to head home from Honiara. Emily’s brother did not fully trust his messenger, so he made sure Emily knew the amount she was supposed to receive, when and from whom. Given the limited payment and cash transfer options in Solomon Islands, the family has to rely on this risky method of sending and receiving money.

Emily’s case is no exception. Cash value rarely travels directly through the cables and waves that connect Solomon Islands’ digital technologies, often unreliably. Instead, digital financial services are regularly facilitated by ‘human brokers’; not third-party intermediaries or bank agents, but largely informal ones: travelling family or acquaintances.

Mobile phones have recently made it considerably easier for Solomon Islanders to participate in the cash economy without formal employment. Beyond cash gifts, like the one Emily received from her brother, most people access cash by participating in bush markets, for example, by selling excess fish or garden produce. The problem with these markets has for a long time been the findability of particular products as well as customers. Women especially often travel for hours to sell or buy particular goods at a particular market, just to return without achieving all their intended (financial) goals.

Mobile phones have opened new digital markets that at least in part solve this problem: Solomon Islanders are avid participants in Facebook Buy and Sell Groups.

Buy and Sell Groups work similar to non-digital bush markets. Unlike brick and mortar businesses that rely on inventories and possibly even employees, participants can buy and sell products flexibly, when desired and available. And, Buy and Sell Groups also make it relatively easy to locate a given product through Facebook search functions instead of simply hoping for a particular good to be available at a nearby market. The same is true for selling items: customers are much more readily found.

However, digital markets accessed via mobile phones do not solve the problem of distance. If an urban customer wants to buy a piglet from a rural seller, they still have to find a way to get to it. But mobile phones do make it easier to take care of the micro-coordination needs of such a transaction. Buyers and sellers alike are often able to locate someone travelling between the two sites, not unlike the villager that Emily’s brother sent to deliver his monetary gift.

Buyer and seller do not even both have to have Facebook accounts. It is always possible to ask a relative with an account to help out and step in as a broker of digital markets. This is what Martha, a Honiara resident, does. She has held several positions in the formal economy, usually involving food services. However, she has struggled with employment conditions and the difficulties of juggling her family responsibilities with long working hours.

Martha left her job and decided to try earning an income on Facebook markets by the time Stephanie (co-author) met her. Martha is skilled in the culinary arts, making all manner of dishes that are popular with Honiara’s expat community and urban elites. When she needs or wants to make money, she now asks her brother to advertise her skills – or a particular food item she makes, such as a birthday cake – on a Buy and Sell Facebook Group. He then helps her identify reliable buyers (not all are) and often accompanies her when she delivers products and collects payments. Martha’s brother here fulfils a role similar to those of men accompanying women to rural markets for protection but, at least historically, rarely as traders themselves.

Today, ‘human-brokered’ digital markets continue to rely on cash transfers, for the same reason that Emily does, but digital technologies have made access to the cash economy easier, and they have done so by building on established kin and trade networks.

Editor’s note: UNCDF has been present in Solomon Islands since 1982, implementing a range of initiatives to support economic growth and financial inclusion. Our work is best recognized through the 12-year Pacific Financial Inclusion Programme (PFIP), which helped over two million low-income Pacific Islanders access formal financial services and financial education. While PFIP came to an end last year, UNCDF launched the Pacific Digital Economy Programme (PDEP) to continue the important work on financial inclusion – this time by supporting the development of inclusive digital economies region-wide. Geoffrey Hobbis is the Assistant Professor, Centre for Media and Journalism Studies, at the University of Groningen, Netherlands; and Stephanie Hobbis is the Assistant Professor, Sociology of Development and Change, at the Wageningen University, Netherlands. Much of Mr and Mrs Hobbis’ work is relevant to our own and the findings of Geoffrey’s book, The Digitizing Family: An Ethnography of Melanesian Smartphones, offers crucial insight about the digital lives of rural Solomon Islanders. We aim to continue engaging subject matter experts in various capacities to provide our audiences with up-to-date information, analyses and lessons learned on topics of interest. This is part of the UNCDF’s role as a global thought leader in local economic development, helping developing countries grow from the ground up.