Mobile Phones Bring the Next Wave of New Ideas from the South

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Informa Telecoms and Media estimates mobile networks now cover 90 per cent of the world’s population – 40 per cent of whom are covered but not connected.

The rapid growth in take-up has made mobile phones the big success story of the 21st century. With such reach, finding new applications for mobile phones that are relevant to the world’s poor and to developing countries is a huge growth area. It is estimated that by 2015, the global mobile phone content market could be worth over US $1 trillion: relegating basic voice phone calls to just 10 per cent of how people use mobile phones.

Leonard Waverman of the London Business School has estimated that an extra 10 mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country, leads to an extra half a percentage point of growth in GDP per person.

The experience of the US $100 laptops from the One Laptop Per Child Project (OLPC) offers an important lesson on making technology work for the poor: the business model has to come first. In the case of OLPC, the big computer manufacturers are already offering low-cost laptops with extensive software and other support: and out-selling OLPC. And it is mobile phones that are proving how fast take-up can be if users are willing to pay for the service on offer.

A new report by the DIRSI (Regional Dialogue on the Information Society) on mobile phones and poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean, unearths the strategies the poor use to access and use mobile telephony, and the main barriers to increasing usage. It also looks at how mobile phones have improved the lives of the poor.

The poor use them to strengthen social ties, increase personal security, and improve business and employment opportunities. Few share their phones and most own them. The only exceptions are Colombia and Peru, where the incentive is to share ownership. Most importantly, the study found that mobile phones are not a luxury good, but the most cost-effective solution to many problems.

Some 250 million Indians today have mobile phones. Many of them are people who make just US $2 or US $3 a day. More and more are getting access to computers and the internet, even in villages.

India’s Mapunity is pioneering ways to reduce the stress and anguish of the daily commute to work – something that seriously erodes people’s quality of life and affects their health. Owner Madhav Pai is using SMS technology to improve transportation in Bangalore by providing the Bangalore Traffic System’s information on bus routes, locations and congestion – all in real time – to mobile phones. The service is free for subscribers to Airtel, and at a small cost for others.

The service works by collecting information on cell phone signal density to build up a map of congestion at different intersections in the city. Tracking congestion has had two benefits: it not only shows where the trouble spots are, it has also enabled mobile phone companies to know where to place extra relay towers to boost capacity and reduce network overload.

This technology effectively turns the mobile phone into a GPS (global positioning system) mapper, with real-time updates.

The company is incubated at the N S Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

In Nairobi, Kenya computer science graduate Billy Odero’s MoSoko uses an SMS text bulletin board system for buying and selling via mobile phones. He got the idea when he had to move out of his university dormitory and needed to sell things to the other students. He was also interested in finding an apartment to share with other newly graduated students somewhere downtown. Tired of sifting through irrelevant ads on bulletin boards, Billy developed an SMS bulletin board system to help connect buyers and sellers in Nairobi. Sellers text into the MoSoko SMS gateway with information regarding the type of item they would like to sell (a bicycle, TV, couch), their location, and the asking price for the item. This information is stored in a database and can be easily accessed via SMS by potential buyers.

More ingenuity can be found in Fultola, Bangladesh. A modest internet café with just four workstations it may be, but remarkably all four can access the internet: through just one mobile phone. This is all possible because of something called an EDGE-enabled (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) mobile phone. One of the computers acts as a web server, while the other three workstations are connected to a small device no larger than a cigarette packet. All of this is wireless and possible because of the EDGE-enabled Motorola clamshell mobile phone using a USB cable connection to the server. The project is being supported by the Ndiyo Project, Grameen Phone and Grameen Telecom.

People use the internet centre to keep in touch with relatives, check market prices, and seek job opportunities or access government websites. The project was co-ordinated by a team working for the GSM Association, the global confederation of mobile phone operators. The aim was to explore the extent to which mobile networks could provide Internet connectivity in developing countries, and to demonstrate the extent to which mobile telephony can increase access to online resources.

In Ghana, mPedigree uses mobiles to fight counterfeit drugs. The plague of counterfeit medicines in Africa kill thousands, and it is estimated between 10 and 25 per cent of all drugs sold in the developing world are fakes (BASCAP – Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy). And in Africa, this may be over 50 per cent (USFDA).

mPedigree founder Ashifi Gogo started his company to use mobile phones to protect people against counterfeit drugs and vaccines. “Buying medicine here is like Russian roulette,” said Gogo. “I don’t want people to have to choose between a drug that’s safe and more expensive and a drug that’s cheap and not genuine. Those choices shouldn’t be there.”

Ghanaian Gogo (also a graduate of Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering), lets consumers send an SMS to mPedigree to verify if a drug is legitimate while they are thinking about buying it in the drug store or the street market. The consumer types in the serial number found on the drug’s packet to a short code (a five-digit number similar to the ones used to top-up mobile phone credits). The consumer then receives an SMS response verifying the drug’s authenticity.

To publicise the service, mPedigree advertises in parallel with existing drug promotion campaigns by legitimate pharmaceutical companies. It is also getting publicity help from the local mobile phone provider, Mobile Content in Ghana.

Gogo hopes to expand the service to Nigeria and Mozambique – and eventually the rest of Africa.

Gogo is really enjoying the whole experience of setting up this business: “It’s fun!” he said. “It just feels so good doing this work.”

Resources

  • IdeaMamaClub: This online invention and business start-up incubator connects inventors and social entrepreneurs with investors, creative support and global business networks.
  • Stockholm Challenge Awards 2008: An initiative of the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP), it has four categories and looks for innovative projects in ICT.
  • Terranet: A Swedish company, it has developed a way to make calls between a network of cellphones in a geographically close area, free. A powerful development for entrepreneurs in the South looking for free calls. They are piloting this technology in Ecuador.
  • SME Toolkit: A free online resource aimed at the South to help entrepreneurs and small businesses access business information, tools, and training services to be able to implement sustainable business practices.
  • Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles: EPROM, part of the Program for Developmental Entrepreneurship within the MIT Design Laboratory, aims to foster mobile phone-related research and entrepreneurship. Key activities include: development of new applications for mobile phone users worldwide.
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