THE BLOG

Mobile Services and E-Empowerment -- The Developing World Has the Advantage

12/10/2012 02:09 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2013

A FEEEDS blogspot

The developing world and emerging countries such as China and India are far ahead of the U.S. and Europe in creating services available to mobile phone users -- providing technology-based empowerment (or e-empowerment) to customers who typically fall outside of formal sectors such as banking.

Mobile services such as sharing credits, providing cash, paying bills, supporting small and medium (SME's) enterprises, and sharing health information from HIV/AIDS to prenatal care -- all have become the order of the day for many in the developing world. In fact mobile phones in Africa, China, and Asia have become cradles of innovation for mobile services; mobile phones are used less for talking, and more today as platforms to support daily living, and improving quality of life. Today nearly half of the world's population has access to mobile phones, both pre-paid and post-paid services, growing from fewer than 1 billion in 2000 to over 6 billion, of which nearly 5 billion units are in the developing world.

Africa -- The Most Wired Continent:

Africa hails right now as the continent with the most mobile phone users topping the list with around 649 million subscribers making it the most wireless region in the world. This represents about 65 percent penetration of the region's population, with future users at year's end and into 2013 reaching 735 million. Nigeria reportedly leads the way with more than 100 million subscribers. China follows but also has the unique distinction of adding 8 million new mobile phone subscribers per month, while India pulls in about 7 million new subscribers per month. These sheer numbers have produced unique e-services, turning the mobile phone into a life line for many people living at the poverty level or striving to enter the lower and middle income tiers. As more people in these regions move into the middle class, more services will be available to them on their mobile phones. In addition to mobile services the application world (or apps) in these regions has also exploded. According to Information and Communications for Development 2012, more than 30 billion "apps" were downloaded in 2011. One interesting factoid which underscores Bangladeshi cellphone czar Igbal Quadir who said "connectivity is productivity," a 2005 London Business School report said that when 10 people out of 100 use a mobile phone GDP rises about .59 percent

Innovative Mobile E-Services:

Here is a look at some of the e-empowerment uses of mobile phone-based services that underscore the innovative paradigm shift taking place in the developing and emerging worlds over the West in mobile technology services.

Let's start with subsistence agriculture for small farm holders -- a sector which employs most in developing world. In countries like Benin, Tanzania, and Kenya small holder farmers are able to get commodity prices and yield information on their phones determining where best to sell their goods -- e-empowering rural farmers who use their mobile phones like a mini mercantile exchange. There are apps such as TradeNet, now available in 17 countries, providing information about agricultural goods and micro-insurance for agriculture products, while the "iCow" app -- billed as "the world's first mobile phone cow calendar," uses text messaging and voice services to track gestation for dairy farmers and give tips on breeding and cow nutrition.

Mobile Financial Services and Banking for the Unbanked:

Some of the greatest out of the box efforts from Ghana to Bangladesh in mobile services have been in mobile financial and banking services for the unbanked (meaning mobile customers not in the formal banking sector). For example, an array of cloud-based secure financial services for SME's are coming on line for mobile phones, particularly for keeping track of credit scores, data sharing with micro finance institutions, and accountancy applications. These mobile services help better managing resources and save money for the small business person. In Venture , with offices in Bangalore, M-Cloud IT Solutions in Ghana, and Cloud Kenya are just a few services, which help SMEs manage and save resources.

Both feature phones (non-smart), and smart phones in the developing and emerging worlds are sporting enhanced SIM cards which allows for a range of payments for household and business expenses, or provides credits to send cash to family. Users can also turn over minutes to a cell phone vendor, who in turn gives the equivalent amount of cash to a designated individual, minus a small fee. With enhanced SIM cards, mobile phone owners can go to kiosks, bars, or small restaurants to get credits added to their SIM cards, or transfer money such as with M-Pesa in Kenya. In South Africa these are called a variety of things from "bank shops" to "banks of corrugated metal" to "kiosk banks." Companies like Safricom, Vodafone, MTN, Standard Charter, Western Union, Visa and others are taking advantage of these platforms to reach new customers. The key is that even with less technology-enhanced feature phones someone with a daily budget as low as $2-10 per day can up their phone credits or pay their household bills. Zoona, with agents functioning like ATM's in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi, allow people to store savings, receive insurance payouts, and repay loans.

In Bangladesh, there is an eBay like mobile service called Cellbazaar, known as "market in your pocket" listing mobile numbers of those looking to buy or sell everything from rice to a goat, while in Palestine, Souktel's JobMatch service is helping young people find jobs.

Mobile Services: Education and Health Also in the Mix:

In South Africa MoMath, launched by Nokia, is teaching mathematics via a teaching tool on Africa's Mxit social media platform, while Info Dev, a Finnish Government-Nokia collaboration, has established five regional mobile innovation labs (mLabs) in Armenia, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, and Vietnam, using social networking to bring entrepreneurs together with stakeholders in mobile hubs or mHubs. On health care, Medic Mobile is helping provide prenatal care to rural mothers in Malawi using text messaging, and USAID, Johnson & Johnson, and mHealth have developed the text-based Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) providing information from swaddling to breast-feeding to over 20 million expectant and new mothers in 35 countries (e.g. South Africa, Indonesia and Bangladesh).

It is clear that south-south countries are far advance in using mobile services, and also creating new ways to address poverty, raise standards of living, and improve socio-economic issues in innovative ways. We in the West certainly need to play catch-up!