By Chris Strub

Long lines outside a pop-up store in Manhattan might seem like a memory of yesteryear, but just last month, the world’s “first reverse cell phone store” debuted with intentions of widespread social good.

Although currently shuttered, like almost all of New York City, due to the coronavirus pandemic, A Good Call opened its doors on International Women’s Day — March 6 — with a goal of purchasing New Yorkers’ unused smartphones and sending them to women living in underserved countries worldwide.

“There’s a severe lack of physical schools, qualified teachers, sanitation facilities within active schools and harmful gender norms, all which pose a barrier for bright, young women who are eager to learn,” said Tariq Fancy, founder of education technology nonprofit Rumie. “Smartphones are one way of increasing their opportunities.”

Lines in NYC
Long lines at A Good Call stretched down this Manhattan block before the coronavirus shut down NYC. A GOOD CALL

With A Good Call, Rumie is partnering with ecoATM, which to date has collected over 25 million devices over the last two decades. A March joint press release from the companies described unexpectedly high demand, with the companies contemplating even more locations before the coronavirus pandemic ground those plans to a temporary halt.

“The decision to close schools in 165 countries around the world due to the coronavirus pandemic has made it so more than 1.5 billion people are unable to attend class, that’s 87% of the world’s student population,” said Yanyan Ji, Chief Marketing Officer of ecoATM. “This campaign is now more important than ever, particularly for young women that live in underserved communities that already face barriers to education like a lack of physical schools, qualified teachers, sanitation facilities and in some places, harmful gender norms. The spread of COVID-19 is making it even harder for these vulnerable young women to continue their studies.”

At the currently closed store, located at 347 Broome St., visitors are able to hear from young women in Afghanistan whose lives have been enhanced through a smartphone-enabled education. They share stories of being forced to flee cities and overpopulated classrooms. Through access to The Rumie App, they now speak of becoming doctors, lawyers and journalists, and receiving an education that they previously never deemed possible.

Devices are exchanged for anywhere from $3 to $480, and then shipped to young women within Rumie’s network, which includes countries like Afghanistan, Rwanda and Lebanon. According to ecoATM, the average American has six idle electronic devices collecting dust, representing a huge opportunity to help women in need worldwide.

“Before the coronavirus, 2.2 million girls in Afghanistan didn’t go to school. Since the pandemic, that number is now much higher. This is the last academic month for children in Afghanistan and we had planned on training teachers and students over the summer to use digital tools,” said Pashtana Durrani, Founder of LEARN Afghanistan. “However, due to COVID-19, the schools are now closed, so we’ve had to adapt and move our training completely online.

“With the sudden influx of students learning from home, the phones that have been traded in via ecoATM and Rumie’s campaign, A Good Call, have never been more needed in Afghanistan,” Durrani continued. “Teachers need to be able to continue to instruct their pupils, and students who live in offline and remote areas need phones installed with educational resources, such as the Rumie App, to continue their studies while practicing social distancing and self-isolation.” 

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Cover Photo: A Good Call