News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Friday, 3 July 2009

Mobile applications used to alleviate poverty in Africa and Asia

Earlier this week, global not-for-profit organisation the Grameen Foundation announced the launch of a suite of mobile applications developed with Google and cellco MTN Uganda. The applications deliver highly useful services and information that were not previously available to Uganda’s poor and disadvantaged communities.

The Grameen Foundation's role is to help the world's poorest people to gain access to financial services and technology solutions through the provision of financing, management strategies and technology to the local organisations that serve them. The Foundation also spearheads technology initiatives that create new microbusiness opportunities for the poor, provide telecommunications access for the world's rural poor, and improve their access to health and agriculture information and other services.

I learned of the launch via the blog maintained by Ken Banks, the founder of FrontlineSMS, a free large-scale messaging solution for NGOs and non-profit organisations working in the developing world. Having had the pleasure of meeting Ken once (albeit too briefly) and having sung his praises more than once here, it was interesting to learn that he was also involved in the early stages of the Grameen Foundation's Ugandan initiative, spending a month on the ground studying a mixture of geography, culture, challenges, data availability and technologies in and around Kampala.

If, like me, you find Ken's work - and the work of the many, many organisations now using FrontlineSMS - to be fascinating and inspiring, I'd encourage you to read his review of an exciting twelve months since the release of the application's most recent version in June 2008.

I can also suggest an interesting read for those of you who like a dash of Hollywood glamour with your telecoms news and your accounts of how mobile technology improves lives in developing countries. This comes in the form of a press release from the University of Canberra (Australia), whose researchers are working with the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, an organisation founded by tabloid favourites Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. The researchers are trialling a deployment of FrontLine SMS for Cambodian farmers which is aimed at helping to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the country. The system can be used to alert villagers about disease outbreaks, and to provide other important health and agricultural information. An example of the latter is helping farmers access the price of maize or soybeans on demand, so they are in a stronger position to negotiate the sale of their crop.

Back in Uganda, meanwhile, the suite of five mobile services announced this week are provided using Google SMS Search technology and the MTN network. They are:
  • Farmer’s Friend - a searchable database with both agricultural advice and targeted weather forecasts
  • Health Tips - which provides sexual and reproductive health information
  • Clinic Finder - which helps locate nearby health clinics and their services
  • Google Trader, which matches buyers and sellers of agricultural produce and commodities as well as other products
Uganda, where mobile market penetration stands at 33.63% (as of June 2009) according to WCIS, has yet to see the deployment of 3G mobile broadband networks, and is also a market in which the majority of handsets in circulation are presumably more basic models. With this in mind, then, these services are SMS-based and designed to work with low-end devices, thereby reaching the broadest possible audience.

Despite the mobile market growing strongly in Uganda, the low penetration rate (vs. a world average of 63.05%) is evidence that SIM cards and handsets remain beyond the reach of many in terms of affordability.

This need not mean, however, that services of this kind - or indeed access to basic mobile voice - cannot be accessed by those not able to buy a phone of their own. Uganda is, after all, one of the countries most strongly associated with the the Village Phone concept, which involves prospective subscribers taking small loans to purchase a phone and SIM card. These users then provide services to their neighbours in rural areas, for which a fee is charged. This way, a Village Phone entrepreneur repays the original loan and then has an ongoing, sustainable income stream. The entrepreneur's customers, meanwhile, experience an improvement in their own living standards as a result of having access to communications services.

As you might expect, then, the Grameen Foundation's press release this week makes it clear that the new SMS-based services can be accessed by existing Village Phone Operators, thereby leveraging an established means of connecting the poorest people with useful services.

Much of what I have read and heard about life-improving services in developing countries has stressed that the telecoms operators, at least, do not regard their involvement in projects like this as an act of charity. On the contrary, the oft-articulated argument is that this is good business - if these services boost the productivity of rural people and assist in lifting them out of extreme poverty, this creates a prospective new customer segment for MNOs where none previously existed. This spirit is evident in comments made by Noel Meier, CEO of MTN Uganda, who said that his company "hoping to reach people in rural and disadvantaged communities while we build up a new line of business for the company."

Having dedicated much time here of late to gossip about M&A activity, it's been good today to look away from the boardrooms and towards the users of the services provided by telcos in developing countries. I remain hopeful that the profit motive can be successfully reconciled with the alleviation of poverty and misery. Stories like the ones recounted today keep that hope alive.


1 comment:

  1. This is similar to a private company, Mobile XL that provides a browser-like experience on most any SMS-capable cellphone.


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