In 1998 Der Spiegel’s “Kommunikation total” issue profiled the global connectivity revolution underway and being accelerated by the Internet boom of the late 1990s. It chose my picture of a satellite dish and a ger in the Gobi Desert to symbolise this historic event.
From 1997 to 1999, I served as the Communications Coordinator (head of communications) for the United Nations (UN)/United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) mission in Mongolia, founding and directing its UNDP Mongolia Communications Office.
The world has changed considerably since then; and so has Mongolia. The digital revolution has rolled across the planet, the attacks of 9/11 unleashed a wave of violence and wars, and Mongolia even became the fastest-growing economy in the world a few years ago (2012). But back when this book was researched, Mongolia was just coming out of decades of isolation within the Soviet orbit under Communism, and the country experienced in the 1990s “one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever” (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994).
Financial transactions and banking with mobile phones have been a Kenyan success story.
Now, one service, M-Shwari, has reached a significant milestone in the history of m-banking (mobile phone banking): it was able to record a billion Kenyan shillings (US $11,926,100) in savings deposits in a month after its launch in November 2012 and reached deposits of Kenyan shillings 2.8 billion (US $33 million) by February of 2013. This outstripped the Kenyan shillings 378 million (US $4 million) in loans lent by the service, reports Daily Nation.
M-Shwari is a mobile phone banking product that allows people to save and borrow money by phone and earn some interest too. The service offers small emergency loans to customers, offering a financial lifeline to people who would have been frozen out of financial services in the past.
There is no need to have any contact with a bank or bother with paperwork. And loans are instant because they are small.
Safaricom Chief Executive Officer Bob Collymore told the Daily Nation “Trends show that it has become more of a savings service than a lending service. This is what we intended since the beginning.”
As of February 1.6 million customers had used the service.
Both these developments are solid proof that innovation aimed at drawing in the poor into the mainstream economy not only works, it is profitable and exportable.
M-Shwari (http://www.safaricom.co.ke/personal/m-pesa/m-shwari/m-shwari-faqs) works like this: a customer can save as little as one Kenyan shilling to receive an interest rate of up to 5 per cent. If they want a loan, then they can borrow from 100 Kenyan shillings (US $1.19) to a maximum of 20,000 Kenyan shillings (US $238) for a processing fee of 7.5 per cent which will need to be paid back after 30 days.
By offering greater access to loans, M-Shwari s increasing competition in the banking sector and giving customers a choice.
It joins an ongoing revolution in access to credit for the poor. Powerful mobile phones enable individual depositors and businesspeople to organize their financial affairs and business needs on the phone. This is a revolutionary development in many places where people previously had to contend with poor access to financial services – or no access at all.
M-Shwari and products like it allow people to borrow, save and conduct transactions with family, friends, business partners and customers over their mobile phones.
M-Shwari is a collaboration between Kenyan telecoms company Safaricom and the Commercial Bank of Africa. It is being hailed as an example of how banks and telecommunications companies can cooperate to offer innovative financial products to the country.
For the unbanked in India, the initiative between Vodafone India (https://www.vodafone.in/pages/index.aspx) and ICICI Bank, India’s largest private bank, has started to roll out the Kenyan M-PESA mobile phone banking platform in India as of April 2013. They are hoping to open up access to banking to 700 million Indians who currently do not have bank accounts or access to banking facilities. The rollout starts in the country’s eastern regions of Kolkata and West Bengal (CNN).
It looks like access to banking services for the poor in the global South will soon undergo radical change with these large-scale initiatives.
2) iHub Nairobi: Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community is an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers, designers and researchers. Website: ihub.co.ke/
4) Appfrica: Founded in 2008 in Kampala, Uganda, Appfrica is an innovative global consultancy specializing in market research studies, custom technology solutions and investment in emerging markets. Website:http://appfrica.com/
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; WIZZITand MTN Mobile Money in South Africa; M-Pesa in Kenya; Celpay in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
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.
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.
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.”
IdeaMamaClub: This online invention and business start-up incubator connects inventors and social entrepreneurs with investors, creative support and global business networks.
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.