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Computer ‘Gold Farming’ Turning Virtual Reality Into Real Profits

The rapid spread of the internet around the global South is bringing with it new forms of work. One of these trends is so-called “gold farming”: making money in the virtual world of computer gaming by trading in virtual money, prizes and goods for busy gamers who don’t have time to do it themselves. This work now employs 400,000 people – mostly men and mostly in China, but also elsewhere in the South, according to a new report.

Working out of internet centres where they can get access to high-speed or broadband internet connections, “gold farmers” use the global trade in virtual goods for online computer games in the same way stockbrokers trade shares on the world’s stock exchanges. The trade operates similarly to the stock market, with prices fluctuating based on demand and changing by the minute.

And as the report discovered, this trade is acting as a gateway into the world of information technology employment, where computer-literate young men are able to earn an income they could not have done otherwise.

It is a trade that can provide gold farmers with US $145 a month in income. They are often given free food and accommodation to do it, and many have few other economic choices.

“You can probably think of two models,” said the report’s author, Professor Richard Heeks of Manchester University’s Development Informatics Group. “They could play as an individual at a local cybercafe doing their own in-game farming and then selling to one of the trading sites (that buy from farmers at one price, then sell on to player-buyers at a higher price). Or they could be organized into a small/medium enterprise by an owner, all working together in a room full of computers.”

There is a dark side to gold farming too: there have been reports of youths forced to gold farm by gangs who make them work 12 hour days. Crime gangs sometimes become involved and scams proliferate.

Heeks says the downside is the result of governmental ignorance. “The main problem is a lack of understanding about ICT and ICT enterprise generally in some governments in developing countries and in particular a relative lack of understanding about the spread and implications of computer games.”

Supporters see gold farming as a flourishing Southern economy that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and exposes participants both to information technology skills and the wide horizons of the virtual computing world. Its defenders say it shows that those who dismiss the expansion of IT infrastructure as a waste of time are missing the emerging economic opportunities it is creating.

Heeks said we still know too little about this fast-evolving sector, but that “gold farming does seem to be providing income/livelihood for young men who would otherwise be unemployed. There are claims that it has helped mop up youths who had otherwise been involved in crime, but we don’t yet know how generalized such claims are.”

The number of players engaged in online gaming has grown by 80 percent per year, and Heeks sees the rise in gold farming as linked to a bigger trend: “in both North and South, we will spend increasing amounts of work and leisure time in cyberspace. Couple that with the growing penetration of ICTs into developing countries, including into poor communities, and there will be growing opportunities for this kind of ‘virtual outsourcing.’”

Currently, more than 300 million people worldwide have access to the internet through fast broadband connections (mostly in developed countries, although this is changing quickly), and more than 1.1 billion of the world’s estimated 6.6 billion people are online.

China is working hard to capture the economic power of the internet. The country’s economic boom has helped create an affluent urban middle class clamouring for the social aspects of internet access like chat rooms, while the government has been driving the roll-out of internet access in rural areas.

The country’s largest Cyber Park is under construction in Wujin New and High-tech Development Zone of Changzhou. It will be a technology incubator, a research and development centre, and a place for small and medium-sized enterprises to innovate.

China’s most ambitious digital media industry development is the Beijing Cyber Recreation District (CRD), a collection of digital media academies and company incubators spread over 100 square kilometres, creating the world’s largest virtual world development. It is already home to more than 200 game and multimedia content producers in western Beijing.

And even in Africa, where broadband penetration rates are very poor, countries are now looking to the mobile phone companies to provide their populations with access to the internet, as they struggle to find a place at the digital table.

Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean strategically close to Africa and better known for tourism and luxury hotels, wants to become the world’s “cyber island”, and Africa’s e-gateway. Armed with the first 3G network in Africa (the third generation of mobile phone technology – offering high-speed internet access and video telephony), Mauritius is moving fast to make good on this advantage. And it is even moving to the next level of mobile-phone speed, High-speed Download Packet Access (HSDPA) – allowing even greater quantities of information to be exchanged.

Mauritius joins a select few countries, including Japan and South Korea, at the forefront of access to 3G. Wireless – or wi-fi – computer access is available in three-quarters of the island.

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: September 2008

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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Southern Innovator Issue 1: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Q1O54YSE2BgC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 2: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Ty0N969dcssC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 3: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=AQNt4YmhZagC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 4: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9T_n2tA7l4EC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 5: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6ILdAgAAQBAJ&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

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Mongolia Looks to Become Asian IT Leader

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

A Mongolian information technology company founded by a woman has shown a way to thrive in the country’s often-chaotic economic environment. With the global economic crisis moving into its third year, Intec’s strategies to survive and thrive offer lessons for other IT start-ups in the South.

While the global economy’s prospects are still uncertain, on the positive side, many believe the best place to be is in emerging economies like Mongolia, with some foreseeing healthy growth for the next 20 to 30 years. Mongolia’s information technology entrepreneurs are looking to prove this is the case. The country has made great strides in improving e-government – jumping from 82nd place to 53rd in the UN e-government survey 2010 (http://www2.unpan.org/egovkb/global_reports/10report.htm) – and is now aiming to become an Asian software and IT services outsourcing powerhouse.

A Northeast Asian nation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongolia) sandwiched between Russia and fast-growing China, Mongolia grapples with the combination of a large territory, a small population (2,641,216) and limited transport infrastructure connecting it to its neighbours. Historically, it is a nomadic nation with a strong animal herding tradition. But during the Communist period, it industrialized and became more urban. After the collapse of Communism at the beginning of the 1990s, the country experienced a terrible economic and social crisis, with rapidly rising poverty rates and high unemployment.

Despite its infrastructure obstacles, Mongolia has been able to develop a lively information technology sector, often with the assistance of the United Nations. During the late 1990s, as the internet revolution exploded, the UN led on supporting infrastructure, skills development, innovation and legislation.

Information technology consulting and services company Intec (www.itconsulting.mn) , founded in 2004, has been able to thrive through the global economy’s ups and downs by identifying an under-serviced niche as a consulting, research and training company. Intec now has five full-time staff and works with a broad network of Mongolian and international consultants.

As is often the case with new businesses, Intec initially found that many doors were closed to start-up enterprises.

“The major challenges which I faced were to make people understand about the consulting services,” said Intec’s founder, Lkhagvasuren Ariunaa. “The consulting services concept was new to Mongolia and Mongolians at that time and not many organizations were willing to work with consulting services. The international and donor organizations were keen to work with consulting services companies; however, they were requiring companies to have a list of successfully implemented projects, which was difficult for a new starter like Intec.

“For example, registering with the Asian Development Bank consulting services database required companies to be operational for at least three years. So, we got registered with ADB consulting services database only in 2008. Meanwhile, personal connections and communication skills helped to find jobs and opportunities for Intec.”

Ariunaa had worked for the Soros Foundation (http://www.soros.org/) but it closed its offices in Mongolia in 2004. Faced with unemployment, Ariunaa went about seeing what she could do next: a dilemma many people face in today’s economy.

“It took me about eight months to develop a business plan and directions of operation of the company. I started in a big room at the national information technology park building with one table, chair and computer.

“It has been quite challenging years for bringing a company to the market and finding niches for us. We have franchised the Indian Aptech WorldWide Training center (http://www.aptech-worldwide.com) in Mongolia – may be one of the few franchising businesses in Mongolia. Currently that center is now a separate entity/company and it has over 20 plus faculty staff and over 300 students.”

Ariunaa had been active in the sector for over 10 years, but while knowing many of the players and organizations, she spent time researching what niche Intec could fill in the marketplace.

“Looking at the ICT market, there were quite a number of internet service providers, mobile phone operators, a few companies started developing software applications, and services etc. However, there were only two to three consulting companies in the ICT sector which to my knowledge at that time were providing consulting services, and still there was a room for Intec.”

Intec then focused on three areas: consulting services, training and skills, and research. Intec found they were pioneering a new concept in Mongolia.

Intec’s first contract was a job with the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin in the United States to organize a three week course for American students to learn about the digital divide in Mongolia. But the global economic crisis hit Mongolia hard in 2009.

“It was challenging to survive and continue working the same way,” Ariunaa said. “There were few ICT-related jobs in Mongolia at that time, and one of our major clients left Mongolia and we had to find other clients in the market.

“One of the ways of approaching this was that we were not asking for fees, instead we would have a barter agreement – we will deliver them services and they will provide some services for us. For the company itself, we needed to find ways of financing and covering costs for renting of premises, paying salaries for staff on time, paying taxes and other expenses.”

The environment in Mongolia is being helped by the Information and Communications Technology and Post Authority (ICTPA) of Mongolia (http://www.ictpa.gov.mn) , which has been driving forward an e-Mongolia master plan. With 16 objectives, it ambitiously seeks to place Mongolia in the top five of Asian IT nations, competing with South Korea, Singapore, Japan and China.

Ariunaa believes Mongolia has many competitive advantages. “Mongolia is known for a high-literacy rate and math-oriented training and education, and ICT specialists are targeting to become a software outsourcing country for other countries. Another advantage of Mongolians is that they can easily learn other languages: we are fluent in Russian, English, Japanese, Korean, German and we believe that with these two major advantages, we will be able to do a good job with outsourcing of software development.”

While men still dominate the ICT sector in Mongolia, Ariunaa has not found being a woman a disadvantage. “In Mongolia, as gender specialists say, there is a reverse gender situation. Women are educated, well-recognized and well-respected. There were situations, when I was the only women participant in the meeting with about 20 men. But I never felt somewhat discriminated or mis-treated and I think that’s the overall situation towards gender in Mongolia.”

Intec’s success working with Aptech WorldWide Training’s franchising contract brought many advantages for a start-up. “It’s a faster way to do things, and you don’t have to re-invent the wheel.”

As a Mongolian company, Intec has found it best to play to its local strengths. “National companies have knowledge, expertise and experience of local situations, know players and understand about legal, regulatory matters. … partnership or cooperation are one of the means of cooperating with big global players.”

Intec’s success is also down to Ariunaa’s enthusiasm: “It’s fun and I love doing it – just usually do not have enough time!”

Resources

1)  Advice on starting a business and succeeding in tough economic times. Website:http://www.businesslink.gov.uk/bdotg/action/layer?topicId=1073858805

2) Changing Dynamics of Global Computer Software and Services Industry: Implications for Developing Countries: A report from UNCTAD on how computer software can become the most internationally dispersed high-tech industry. Website:http://www.unctad.org/templates/webflyer.asp?docid=1913&intitemid=2529&lang=1

3) Afrinnovator: Is about telling the stories of African start-ups, African innovation, African made technology, African tech entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs. Their mission is to ‘Put Africa on the Map’ by covering these kinds of stories from all over Africa. As their website says, “if we don’t tell our own story, who will tell it for us?” Website:http://afrinnovator.com

4) TechMasai: Pan-African start-up news and reviews. Website: www.techmasai.com

5) Ger Magazine Project: Mongolia’s first online magazine pioneered communicating on the web. Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ger_magazine

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Launched in 1997 in a major crisis, the UN Mongolia Development Portal (www.un-mongolia.mn) became the country’s largest online bilingual publisher and an award-winning pioneer of web content. It proved Mongolia had the potential to innovate in digital.
Story featured in the UN E-Government Knowledgebase and E-Government Survey in Media.
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Creative Use of Wi-Fi to Reach the Poor

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

In 2003 former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for greater access to wi-fi, or wireless internet networks, as a mechanism to help poorer regions catch up with the pace of technological change in developed countries. Wireless networks remove the need to lay costly wires and can quickly bring fast and convenient internet access to large populations currently denied access. By removing the need to lay lots of cables to get communities online, wireless could help poorer nations narrow the digital divide and catch up with countries where the technology has already taken hold. Social entrepreneurs are stepping in to fill the gap between the promise of wi-fi and the reality.

A contemporary take on the mobile library, where a bus travels to remote or under serviced areas to lend books, is being used to bring wi-fi and web content to remote villages in India, Rwanda, Cambodia and Paraguay lacking internet access. United Villages and its subsidiary First Mile Solutions cleverly targets only the content the villagers really want and then provides it to them for a fee. Using a fleet of buses and motorcycles, they upload in the city before going to the countryside popular pages and pages previously requested. “There’s only 0.003 percent of the web that rural Indians care about,” founder Amir Hassan told the BBC. “They want to know the cricket scores, they want to see the new Aishwarya Rai photos, and they want to hear a sample of the latest Bollywood tunes.”

Once in the countryside, a small box with an antenna onboard the buses or a motorcycle communicates with the rural computers, sometimes up to six times a day. Special content requests can be made for a few rupees, and emails are collected and delivered. Not only do the buses deliver web content, they also act as a courier service, picking up and delivering products ordered via the web for the villagers. “We-re bringing e-commerce to rural India,” said Hassan.

“My objective is to show to the village youth that having a PC with connectivity is a viable business, so that more and more unemployed youth can take up this as a self-employment opportunity,” remarks villager Raj Kishor Swain, who helps with United Villages.

Green WiFi, based in San Francisco, has a simple aim: to provide children in developing countries with access to the internet. But the difference is that they have developed a solution to the biggest problem in most remote regions: reliable electricity supply. Their invention is intended to partner with the US $100 laptop computers being rolled out in the developing countries by the One Laptop Per Child Project. Green WiFi has developed a low cost, solar-powered, standardized wi-fi access solution that runs out-of-the-box with no systems integration or power requirements. All that is required is a single source of broadband access and light.

In a further boost to internet access in Africa, the World Bank is also funding US $164.5 million in high-speed internet access for Kenya, Burundi and Madagascar to boost regional competitiveness. Eastern and much of Southern Africa is the only region in the world not connected to the global broadband infrastructure.

Resources

  • The Wireless Internet Institute was launched in 2001 as an international think tank where stakeholders explore wireless Internet technologies, best practices and sustainable implementation models. W2i is a World Times, Inc. initiative addressing the regulatory, business and integration complexities associated with the deployment of wireless Internet technologies.
  • The World Dialogue on Regulation for Network Economies is concerned with regulation and governance for network economies. They conduct research, facilitate online dialogue and discussion among experts, and publish and distribute papers, reports and other relevant information.
  • I-Genius: I-genius is a world community of social entrepreneurs and seeks to inspire a new generation of social innovators. They hope to encourage partnerships across geographical and cultural boundaries, by building partnerships between social businesses and wider stake holders, governments, corporations, NGOs, investors and the media.
  • A blog linking technology and social entrepreneurs: Click here
  • Social Edge: a web portal for social entrepreneurs by social entrepreneurs
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Dynamic Growth in African ICT is Unlocking Secrets of SME Treasure Trove

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

A newly released survey of 14 African countries in 2006 has documented the impact of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) on private sector development and how it is contributing to developing a vibrant Small Medium Enterprise (SME) sector in Africa. It discovered how dynamic the SME sector is, how it has rapidly adopted mobile phone technology (96 percent have it), and how if used properly in concert with this new technology, extraordinary economic growth is possible.

The survey – Towards An African e-Index: SME e-Access and Usage in 14 African Countries – covered only businesses employing fewer than 50 people and took in the vast informal sector in the countries. It investigated if they had access to ICTs, how they are using them and if it was making them more productive. SMEs were especially interesting because they do not waste money (most people are just trying to survive) and they only use what is really useful to them to increase income. In the informal sector this has become the mobile phone.

The countries surveyed included Botswana, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. With most of the continent’s poor working in the SME sector, little was actually known about the impact of ICT and its link to profitability and labour productivity. And surveying only formal businesses would be telling half the story since about two-thirds of non-resource driven GDP generation is derived from SMEs, and a large share of that from informal ones.

“This is a sector that has no access to formal finance,” said Dr. Christopher Stork, a senior researcher at the Witwatersrand University in South Africa. “The mobile phones present an opportunity to tap into this market and offer finance, banking services, cash transfers – we see this already in Kenya – without the risks of other services. These informal businesses can build up a history, learn how to better control their businesses, and receive loans. Where the financial system is dysfunctional or overpriced, airtime credits can be the new cash form.”

Africa has a high proportion of entrepreneurs because people have next to no social supports to fall back on and need to do business to survive. Most fall into the informal sector where they can avoid paying tax, pay low wages, and keep overheads down. According to Stork, if governments are serious about dealing with poverty, then the best approach is to acknowledge this sector, and rather than crush it, draw it in to become more sophisticated and efficient. He sees the mobile phones as key to this strategy.

“Innovative technology can help these entrepreneurs to acquire the tools they need to do business better. There is a lack of skills in all areas, a lack of accounting skills, a lack of basic financial management. This is where ICT can overcome this. SMEs can get a monthly statement with all their business transactions, making it easier to manage things. This would be a great way to distribute micro-finance. Savings clubs could store cash on the phones.”

The e-Index also noted the trend for mobile phone providers to consolidate and offer common regional services. This could fuel an explosion in cross-border trade as it becomes cheaper and easier to communicate via mobile phone for business. The e-Index also found the ever-growing importance of internet cafes remains. They continue to evolve into multi-purpose business centres offering a wide range of services, from post to word processing. At present they still remain the main means of accessing the internet. And with broadband still minimal and very expensive, it falls on mobile phones to offer internet access, though this will remain mainly in the continent’s capitals.

The survey’s sponsor, Research ICT Africa! (RIA!) network, seeks to build an African knowledge base in support of ICT policy and regulatory design. The network emerged out of a growing need for hard data and analysis to help the continent join the information age. Throughout 2007 it is conducting household surveys on e-access and e-usage and will present the findings in 2008.

You can download for free the entire report Towards An African e-Index: SME e-Access and Usage in 14 African Countries here: Click

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