By Jennifer Openshaw
Most of us use our cell phones for just about everything these days -- texting a buddy, monitoring social networking sites, or checking the weather.
But the ubiquitous cell phone could dramatically affect hundreds of millions of people in countries like China, India, and Africa. New companies such as Obopay and Moka are providing access to a new virtual world made available by cell phone technology.
Obopay, for instance, is enabling third-world countries including India to receive and send payments via text message, while Moka provides language translations, such as English to Chinese.
What does this mean? In India, where many people don't have access to an address or a bank account, cell phones are the new means for government or an employer to send payments. Once the money is deposited into the recipient's "account," he/she can then remit money internationally, send funds to his family, or pay bills -- all right from the phone. Obopay's system also eliminates the risk of theft in cash-based economies. Imagine the Indian farmer who heads to the market to sell his products. The buyer arrives with a safe filled with cash to buy goods -- imagine how vulnerable that cash may be. A cell phone makes that transaction less risky.
And this new cell phone technology isn't just providing better access to money without physical banks. Imagine living in Mexico, home to 100 million people, or China, with a population of 1.3 billion. Many people living in rural areas in either of these countries face limited access to schools or medical facilities. And in China, with so many different dialects, it's easy for crucial information to get muddied up -- whether it's to teach people English or to inform them of the availability of new vaccinations in their area. By enabling translation via text messaging or SMS, Moka can ensure that converting communication from one language to another is done with fewer problems.
With the ever-popular Twitter now readily available via mobile phones, we're now seeing those who never had a voice really take on government. In Myanmar, thousands of monks took to the streets in pro-democracy demonstrations by communicating through twitter via their cell phones, leaving the military generals "caught in a rare dilemma," according to Reuters. It's a reminder of just how powerful social media has become for human rights and other issues.
For entrepreneurs, it means new opportunities to start and grow businesses -- and to do good works in the process. It's sparking all kinds of ingenuity - imaginative minds developing new ways to leapfrog over the lack of infrastructure and bring these people into the 21st century. In Africa, for instance, there's been an effort to bring laptops to those who've never owned a computer. But this effort may not be practical, because they take more electricity to charge than a cell phone. For Africans, the challenge isn't so much about getting a gadget, but rather access, and cell phones can help solve this.
Bringing it closer to home, the global financial crisis has underscored how little the average person knows about the economy. Yet by breaking outside the traditional Wall Street box in tone and language, even WeSeed.com is able to provide ordinary people -- including students in public schools -- an opportunity to learn and experiment in a way they wouldn't have had before.
These days, mobile technology is perhaps the most powerful enabler to access -- access for the billions who have gone without for too long. It's helping people become more self-sufficient and more educated. It's providing the on-ramp to banking, credit, and money-management tools. It's even creating the road to preventative health care and the maps to locate it.
If there's one tool that may prevent people from being left behind, it's mobile technology.
Jennifer Openshaw, author of The Millionaire Zone, is co-founder and president of WeSeed, whose mission is to enable people to discover the stock market in their everyday lives through their passions, their jobs and the brands they know and love. Her empowering advice, which helps everyday Americans do more with what they have, has been seen on Oprah, Dr. Phil, The Today Show, CNN, CNBC, and Nightline. You can find her on Twitter @jopenshaw or on Facebook. You can also reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.