11/07/2013 11:47 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Power to the People: Who Leads and Who Benefits from Technology Growth in Emerging Markets

If you can remember back to 1995 you will (probably) remember what it was like to live without a mobile phone, without internet and without email. Stock markets were physical places where traders jostled; written correspondence took days to arrive.

For those of us living in developed countries it's important to remember that - as far as the internet is concerned - most people in the world still live closer to the technological set-up of 1995 than of 2013. Of the world's seven billion people, around 2.7 billion have access to the internet: a "penetration rate" of around 40%. When it comes to mobile phones, though, the story is much more evenly balanced, with the International Telecommunications Union putting the mobile phone penetration rate in the developing world at 89% (it's 128% in the developed world). Add to this the fact that global internet penetration rates have nearly sextupled since 2000 and you'll see why 80% of global business leaders now see the next stage of technological growth occurring mainly in emerging markets, where household income is expected to jump by more than $8.5 trillion between 2010 and 2020.

But in order to grasp just how, and by whose instigation, the developing world will be changed by technology you need to look carefully at the differing dynamics of each emerging market and interrogate the views of business leaders on the ground - familiar with the local economies and how they're changing. In the form of new research, that's exactly what Accenture Development Partnerships and Nethope have done. In total, we've spoken to nearly 300 business leaders from around the world and we've interviewed a number of NGO leaders. When it came to the role of the consumer in technological change there were some stark regional disparities.

Take Africa for example - where both internet and mobile phone penetration rates are lowest, but rising fast. Although only a third of African private sector leaders think African consumers will actually "drive" uptake of new technology in the continent, a huge majority (nearly 70%) of the same executives think that consumers will benefit most from technological advancement - i.e. consumers will benefit more than the very technology firms driving the change. When you consider that recent research by a single global technology firm - Vodafone - put the potential benefits of six mobile technologies alone to workers in developing countries at $7.7 billion you begin to see why they are so sanguine. Likewise in South America, executives agree that it will be consumers benefitting the most from new technologies as they become more available.

But this contrasts to a region which - you might argue - people see as the crucible of the technologically-advanced consumer: Asia Pacific. Only a minority of Asian executives think the Asian consumer will benefit most from further technological change, and that large technology firms will be the principle beneficiaries of change. Asia already has over a billion internet users so perhaps the growth rate is expected to slow. But what does this say about Asian executives' attitudes to both their own technology firms and to the degree to which technological change will be consumer driven?

There was also firm disagreement between sectors on who is driving technological growth in the developing world. While 71% of NGO leaders thought consumers would be the main drivers of technological change in the emerging markets rather than global technology firms, only 41% of private sector respondents agreed.

What is clear - as our first paper shows - is that everyone agrees that local particularities need to be taken into account more. Whether this considers a rural/urban split or the level of literacy when designing a technological solution in order to roll out technological fixes at scale, you need to properly apply local knowledge.

What's interesting, and perhaps one of the most striking findings, is the degree to which North American executives stand out from the rest in their opinions on who will lead the march to technological 2013 in the emerging economies. But that's for another post.

You can read the first in-depth paper in a brand new series on technology and development by Accenture and Nethope here.

Join the debate at or via Twitter with #techindev

William Brindley is Chief Executive Officer of NetHope, a unique collaboration of 39 of the world's leading international humanitarian organizations working together to solve international development problems.

Jessica Long is on the leadership team of Accenture Development Partnerships, a not-for-profit group within Accenture which provides business and technology services to the international development sector.