Mobile Phones: Engineering South’s Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Technology is fuelling unprecedented growth in productivity in Asia, with sub-Saharan Africa languishing behind (International Labour Organization). But the growth in mobile phones could help close this gap, as home-grown entrepreneurs are stepping up to exploit this new opportunity.

Mobile phone applications are proving a boon to small businesses and entrepreneurs. They are now putting power in the hands of individuals, making it easier to invent new ways of doing things, transfer money, organise business accounts, provide services, sell things, and keep in touch and up-to-date.

Technology has been the common factor in increases in productivity around the world, and with the rapid rise in mobile phone use, especially in Africa, it looks as if this handy device augers in the next wave of innovation.

And technology and mobile phones in particular, are creating a whole new route to wealth: “The switch.. frees people from geography,” Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis told The Christian Science Monitor. “Singapore can be as rich as Canada, even though Singapore has no land.”

Technology is seen to be opening a new phase in economic competition in services, embracing a wide range of fields, from banking to tourism to healthcare. And it is entrepreneurs who will be at the forefront of making this happen. The majority (59 per cent) of the world’s 2.4 billion mobile phone users live in developing countries (MIT) – making it the first telecommunications technology in history to have more users there than in the developed world. The number of African mobile phone users passed 200 million at the beginning of this year (www.ovum.com), making it the fastest growing mobile phone market. It has increased at an annual rate of 65 per cent – twice the global average (MIT Media Laboratory).

In Kenya in 2005, the government’s Economic Survey found the small business sector, which employs the majority of workers in the nation of 32 million people, created 437,900 jobs – mostly down to the boom in mobile phones. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), adding an additional 10 mobile phones per 100 people boosts a typical developing country’s GDP growth by 0.6 per cent. The boost comes from the innovative use of mobile phone technology by local entrepreneurs.

At the University of Nairobi, the SMS Boot Camp (SMS is the text messaging system on mobile phones) is breeding the next generation of African technology entrepreneurs. Working in partnership with MIT, the student entrepreneurs are working on an impressive list of projects, which can be found online at eprom.mit.edu. The projects are varied, and include perfecting prototype ways to collect medical data on mobiles, accurately tracking phone user’s profiles (habits, friend networks etc.), improving communication between Kenyan hospitals and the centralised blood banks in the country, and quick ways to install applications on all of Kenya’s mobile phone SIM cards.

One graduate, Mohammed Temam Ali in Addis Ababa, is now working on a project for the Ethiopian Telecommunications Company. Another is working for Kenyan mobile phone download service, Cellulant.

Nathan Eagle, a visiting lecturer at the University of Nairobi, has been working with the students on the projects: “Phones are starting to be used as a surrogate for all sorts of technology we take for granted in the West. Credit cards, TVs, radios, computers, etc… In the small Kenyan village where I’m writing this email, I can pay for the taxi ride home with my mobile — we’re even scheduled to be getting a Wimax network (wireless internet) here next year. Talk about leapfrog…”

“I’m also advising a small group of newly graduated Rwandan hackers who are building an SMS-based payment system for electricity.”

But Eagle says the obstacles can still be huge: “Government corruption and red-tape. SMS is illegal in Ethiopia… it is pretty frustrating when you go over to teach an ‘sms bootcamp’ class.”

In India, where there are 185 million mobile phone subscribers, computer science doctoral student and founder of Ekgaon Technologies, Tapan Parikh, has founded a business specifically targeting developing mobile phone-based information systems for small businesses in the developing world. Working in rural India, the applications are designed to make it easier for business owners to manage their own operations in an efficient and transparent way, and also to build strong connections both with established financial institutions and their customers. By making it easier to access finance, and also to get a better price, these businesses will stand a better chance of flourishing, it is believed.

One of his applications is called Cam (named after the phone’s camera). It is a toolkit that makes it simple to use phones to capture images and scan documents, enter and process data, and run interactive audio and video.

Parikh is also using these applications to improve micro-finance. Targeting Indian self-help groups (15 to 20 people who pool their capital together, usually women), the application (called SHG MIS – self-help group management and information system) uses the phone’s camera to enter data, uploading it to online databases, and a package of Web-based software for managing data and reporting to the institution that lent the money.

“In these groups, things are often done in a somewhat ad hoc manner, using informal documentation,” Parikh says, “which can lead to instability and impermanence and contribute to the kinds of tensions that lead small groups to fall apart.” The software gives groups a more systematic method of documenting decisions, tracking financial performance over time, and collecting information on loan effectiveness. Parikh has developed his applications around the needs and behaviour of the users.

This next wave of entrepreneurs will be joining a growing list of made-in-the-South mobile phone innovators like ARYTY, G-Cash and Smart Money in the Philippines; WIZZIT and MTN Mobile Money in South Africa; M-Pesa in Kenya; Celpay in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Resources

  • Key Indicators of the Labour Market, 2007: www.ilo.org

  • Commission for Africa report on mobile phones and development: www.commissionforafrica.org

  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Nairobi are training the next generation of mobile phone entrepreneurs with their “SMS Boot Camp”, focused on developing applications for African phone users: eprom.mit.edu.

  • Entrepreneurs can track the growth of the mobile phones market here: www.wirelessintelligence.com

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