A look at the way ordinary cell phones are changing the lives of individuals in emerging markets.
The iPhone 5 is all the rage in the mobile and tech world. And why wouldn't it be? For months, many people have held off purchases of new smart phones, waiting and hoping that the newest feat by Apple would make the wait worth it.
But in my world, as the CEO of InVenture, a mobile technology company working in the developing world, the buzz is less about the latest and greatest technology produced by Apple or Samsung and more about the dramatic increase in mobile cellphone penetration worldwide. Consider the following: Ericsson estimates that 87 percent of the world population now has access to mobile. That alone is astounding. But if we dig even deeper, the numbers are even more revealing. In the developed world, mobile subscription has reached a saturation point. While thousands of our friends and neighbors will line up for new iPhones, hardly any of them can claim this as their first cellphone purchase. Markets in the developing world now account for 76 percent of mobile subscriptions according to the International Telecommunications Union. According to the World Health Organization report mHealth: New horizons for health through mobile technologies, "The penetration of mobile phone networks in many low- and middle-income countries surpasses other infrastructure such as paved roads and electricity, and dwarfs fixed Internet deployment." Simply put, customers at the base of the pyramid are actually driving demand.
In the United States and other parts of the developed world, we all are aware of the way mobile phone technology has transformed our lives. The Galaxy S3 has been running commercials recently about their newest technology that allows you to share photos instantly with other Galaxy S3 users. Many of us long ago abandoned printing MapQuest directions from our home computer and instead search for directions to where we are going on our phones as we are walking out the front door. And who isn't guilty of taking a peek at their fantasy football stats in real-time when at a Sunday brunch? Mobile phones, in ways big and small, good and bad, have changed the ways in which we interact with one another and go about our daily lives.
In the developing world, amongst those making less than $2 a day, mobile technology is also changing lives and interactions. Instead of photo sharing, innovative companies have introduced easy ways to share money, learn financial literacy basics, even obtain a credit score that can help you access financial markets typically inaccessible to people in this socioeconomic group.
But banking is only one piece of the mobile technology story in the developing world. Advancements in agriculture, education, disaster management, and even health can all be credited to advancements in mobile penetration rates in low-income communities across the world. UNICEF has an open source software program that harnesses the power of texting to collect data and share information across groups about the spread of HIV. Even Gmail is responding to the potential of this new market, utilizing a platform that allows users in Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana access to email through simple SMS technology.
Five years ago, the first iPhone was released. It upended the traditional thinking about what a phone could be used for. Five years from now, I suspect there will still be great excitement for the latest and greatest smart phone but I also think we will look back on the efforts and advancements of companies, nonprofits, and government agencies who saw the viral spread of cellphones to developing world communities as a chance to improve the quality of life for people and their communities worldwide.