Mobile services for the poor still a question for technology and innovation

Mary Mourad , Monday 30 Apr 2012

At an international event in Cairo, examples were shared from all over the world about how mobile technology worked for the services of the less fortunate, and where gaps still remain

WSA Panel

Forty percent of mobile phone users in Egypt are poor. With this startling fact, Ayman Ibrahim, head of open innovation and socio-economic development at Orange Labs, opened the discussion The Mobile Revolution: Poor but Online. The session was part of several that took place alongside the World Summit Awards celebrations and exhibition that took place in Cairo 26-29 April.

The discussion was led by Peter Bruck, chairman of the World Summit Awards, which deal with innovation in digital media. In his contribution, the most striking fact Ibrahim shared was that the best selling service in Egypt is in fact ring-back-tones, the facility to listen to songs instead of a usual ring when dialling a number.

The example was given to demonstrate the extent to which the poor are ready to pay for certain mobile services, but that no services catering to their needs really exist.

Ibrahim presented what he believed to be the success factors for mobile solutions addressing the poor: first, local innovation that taps into local experiences; second, sustainability in the sense that it's a whole project not just a corporate social responsibility initiative; third, ecosystem, meaning that technology is just one piece of the puzzle, but that it must fit together with government capacities, NGOs and other stakeholders operating in the community; finally, using common sense and not always try to make solutions fit 100 percent but at least be workable.

An example given by Ibrahim featured a workshop initiative that included stakeholders from government, civil society, mobile producers, service providers and community representatives, in order to launch a competition aiming to develop innovation to improve the lives of the poor. He also gave the experience of farmers in Uganda who were able to use mobile information services to know about produce prices enabling them to demand fair prices for their products.

The experience from Ghana, however, was different, as described by Dorothy Gordon, the Director-General of the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT. She said that given that access to farmland was limited, information might not be as helpful. Yet she found the whole concept of information access and working common sense a start to help these communities.

Osama Manzar, founder and CEO of the Digital Empowerment Foundation in India gave two examples of mobile services addressing community needs. One was run by an NGO using mobile phones to follow up on expectant mothers both pre- and post-natal, using text messages and and phone calls for the illiterate. The second example he gave was of a tuberculosis campaign that used mobile technologies to check that patients were taking their medications.

The focus was not only health or other practical services that would cater for the needs of the poor, but also entertainment as articulated by Ralph Simon, CEO and founder of Mobilium International in the UK. He gave the example of the USA service of MUVE that offers an open buffet style on music and clips in return for a fixed monthly fee. Another example he gave was from India where short Bollywood movie clips and songs are sold and viewable on the mobile without the need to own a whole DVD. The final example Simon gave was from Africa, where mobile payment and settlement allowed a whole new range of operations that supported everyone including the poor. 

George Sharkov, the regional manager of the European Software Institute in Bulgaria, reminded the audience that there is already high mobile penetration, so providing new services is bound to help the poor as well. He pointed to the fact that the top five countries in terms of internet access through mobile devices are African, and that the sixth is India. Sharkov explained that securing online operations is critical to enable even more mobile solutions, such as e-voting.

In conclusion, Ayman Ibrahim highlighted the challenge of the lack of social entrepreneurs; while there's no shortage of brilliant developers, he said, there is a lack of cause and motive to organise this effort.

Voices Reaching Out

The discussion did not exhaust the ideas available globally for mobile action among the poor. Osama Manzar explained to Ahram Online in a special interview that tonnes of other ideas exist and have been used for mass action, giving the example of Anna Hazare, the 74 year old Indian who went on huger strike to pass an anti-corruption bill. Supporters simply had to ring – or leave a missed call – on a certain number to indicate solidarity against corruption, allowing thousands to participate, and sending a strong message to the regime that eventually gave in to the demands.

On entertainment, Manzar gave the example of people who support a certain grassroots artist through texting a certain number, paying a small fee to raise funds to support talents and voices from their local community who would never otherwise have a chance.

Using mobile devices also as a literacy tool was tried out in India, with NGOS reaching people who had phones but did not read or write. A similar example Manzar pointed to was the use of mobile centres dedicated to health care, where the poor would go and register, create a database with their symptoms and conditions, and receive treatment at a very small cost.

So far most of these activities are conducted by NGOs, but now new attempts are starting to get businesses involved, as Manzar highlighted.

Competitors and winners at the World Summit Awards Experiences have experience of these initiatives as well as several others, from countries who face similar challenges to Egypt. Certainly there is a lot to be learnt for Egypt as it starts heading towards a more democratic and socially responsible regime. 

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