Mobile phone users world over are increasing at a fast pace. According to the ITU statistics there are over 6 billion mobile phone connections and over 3 billion users world wide. With newer technologies like 4G the mobile phone penetration is only going to increase in the coming years. It would not be incorrect to say that not technology has affected us like the way mobile phones have. Today the smartphone is used for multiple purposes; it’s your Ebook, wallet, reminder, fitness companion, email system, web access gadget, news medium, blogging tool, music repository, weather forecasting tool, entertainment system and banking tool; to name a few. While these all benefits may not be available to everyone everywhere, still the mobile phone with basic text and voice features are today available to a larger part of the world populace.
According to a GSMA Intelligence report about 90% of the world population is now covered by mobile phones (2G in most cases and 73% by 3G). It therefore, makes a lot of sense that mobile phones be used for empowering people in developing countries. The mobile phone is a harbinger of development for the developing countries, simply because of its ability to reach the people, its affordability (to some extent) and the vast potential it carries in bringing about a positive change in the society. Research shows that productivity in creases by 4.2% for a 10% increase in mobile penetration, a mere increase of 10 phones per 100 people results in GDP per capita growth by 1.2% similarly an increase in 3G penetration by 10% increases GDP per capita growth by 0.15%. All these statistics indicate the vast potential of mobile phones for bringing prosperity to a region.
Realizing this vast potential, nowadays mobile phones are being used in developing countries for a myriad of purposes. The vast gaps in communication between places are now amicably covered by mobile phones based on telecom networks, and this enables them to be used for filling in the huge voids present in the fields of education, health, banking, agriculture, business, energy sector (to name a few). A few examples relating to some of these uses are presented in this blog post.
Financial Inclusion. One of the problems developing countries face is not being able to provide banking services to the people, specially in rural areas. Most business transactions are based on hard currency, which is not safe, it is slow and inhibits business growth because of these factors. Mobile technologies have been now used successfully in developing countries to provide mobile banking solutions to the people. So in effect all one needs is a cell phone with working connection to send and/or receive money. With proper regulations in place these systems work according to internationally accepted best practices thus providing people with more opportunities and livelihood. Tanzania is one such country where such systems have been actually deployed and are working wonders for the populace. In Pakistan three operators namely Ufone, Telenor, and Mobilink are providing mobile money solutions which have taken off in a big way. There are now online stores in Pakistan where one can purchase stuff by paying through Jazz Cash besides being able to pay utility bills, purchase mobile phone air time, transfer money, make donations etc. The mobile money systems have actually reduced costs of providing services as they are much cheaper as compared to traditional banking systems since infrastructure costs are minimal. According to the GSMA State of the Industry report 2015 there have been 271 services in 93 countries worldwide and the there are around 411 M registered accounts globally. The same report tells us that Mobile money providers are processing an average of 33 million transactions per day. It is perceived these stats will only grow more with time and provide more opportunities to the people in developing countries.
Mobile Learning. The use of mobile for education (called as mEducation) is another vast field which is being used to provide education in developing countries. A few examples are edume in Rwanda, Najja7ni in Tunisia and Spoken English programs by Bharti Airtel in India. Developing countries are facing big challenges in providing quality education to the masses because of lack of infrastructure (or it high costs), untrained teachers, overcrowding in schools, physically dispersed locations and lack of locally developed content or material. All these challenges can be amicably addressed with mEducation. With mEducation normal education can be supplemented with flexible programs being offered. Students can learn in their own time in the convenience of their homes. Again policies and regulations that support mEducation are needed before such programs can be adopted. mLearning is an innovative solution which addresses multiple issues being faced by the developing countries.
Mobile Health. mHealth is another very innovative use of mobile technology for providing better health services in the developing countries. Although mobile based health services are being used in developed countries also but challenges are different than those of the developing countries. With proper regulation and carefully planned systems better health services can be delivered, which are less expensive, efficient and hassle free. Multiple solutions are available and can be adopted according to the specific needs of a country or region. A few examples are the Millenium Villages Project in Ghana, the Wazazi Nipendeni project in Tanzania, the m4Change project in Nigeria and the Hello Doctor program in South Africa.
Mobile Agriculture. Mobile technology is effectively being used in India to deliver timely and effective information to the farmers. The project called a mKisan delivers content to the farmers at extremely low subscription rates through various mediums like SMS, Helpline, video and IVR. This way farmers can access the information based on their educational background. It has been used by more than a million farmers since its launch in 2012 and about 0.3 million have purchased ongoing subscriptions. In Pakistan Telenor has partnered with USAID and launched a mobile agriculture project with similar aims besides it will also facilitate provision of interest free loans to the farmers, subsidies, access to consultancy and advisory services on fertilizers and crops.
Gender Inclusion. One of the challenges being faced by developing countries is the gender discrimination. With the right use of technology the gap can be bridged by reaching out to the female population which suffers badly because of social or cultural issues and biases present in these countries. Women empowerment through use of mobile phones is another innovative way of addressing this issue. In India Uninor has partnered with Hand in Hand a charitable trust founded in 2002 for women empowerment. The program aims at setting up citizen centers where women can visit and register for a vote, apply for a passport, access the web or send an email. A total of 50 citizen centers are to be set up under this program. Also under a similar program called as Citizen Center Entrepreneur loans ($ 613 to be recovered in small installments) will be disbursed to women who can then setup their own Citizen centers and make money by providing services like, Internet access, fax, printing facilities etc.
Disaster Response. Disasters and natural calamities can strike anywhere anytime, and disaster preparedness calls for early warning systems to be in place so that people can be informed about the possibility of such events taking place in real or near real time. It also requires post disaster preparedness so that help can reach the affected area in time at the required place. When disasters whether (man made or natural) strike there is an immediate need to coordinate and pass on information in a timely manner, for this regulations have to support the whole process so that red tape and bureaucracy don’t hinder the work that is required to be done. In Philippines, SMART Communications has taken a big step by aligning its resources with the disaster response services of the Government as well as NGOs. By liaising with the national metro-logical department it has placed critical weather warning systems at SMART Communications base stations so that weather warnings can be receive din real time and conveyed to all concerned. Government channels use a host of services including text, social media and the internet to reach out to the people in times of emergencies. Disaster response calls for a lot of coordination between multiple agencies, temporary changes in rules (eg sharing same spectrum), and planning at different levels. This means a lot of work has to be done beforehand so that minimum time is lost in responding to the disaster, as time is crucial in saving lives. Also mobile operators are worst affected by natural disasters and issues like transmitted power enhancement, location identification, backup power at sites, frequency sharing, roaming, use of VSATs, co-location of equipment etc have to be sorted out. This all calls for regulations to be in place so that damaged systems can be brought online and live in minimum time. At the same time customs regulations have to be made flexible so that less time is spent in paper work and new equipment if required can be imported without much hassles.
Mobile Government. Mobile Government or mGovernment is typically suited to the developing world for provision of necessary support to government services for improving the lives of people. In Pakistan mGovernment solutions have been integrated in various ways, which make lives of the citizens easy. It is normal to receive updates on one’s cellphone in case he/she has applied for a new Passport and/or National Identity Card. Most if not all of the Government ministries now have a website and useful information and forms can be downloaded from there. Very recently the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) launched a new service using which people can now apply for a passport from their homes using the web. In Uganda birth registration can be done using mobile phones, as paper based systems are slow and not efficient. The procedure for birth registration is simple, yet fast and workable. Hospitals now come equipped with 3G connections and new births can be registered using the web. Similarly, village chiefs can register births using their mobile phones is far off places. As a result of this birth registration has increased from 25% to around 80%.
Conclusion. Mobile phones are very helpful in socioeconomic development as is clear from the examples present above. However, the most important aspect in this scenario is the framing of policies and regulations which facilitate the whole process. Citing the example of Mobile Money, the main reason for its resounding success has been the regulations, e.g, AML/CFT regulations. The investors, banks, donors, MNOs, NGOs etc will only come after there is proper facilitation from the government involving all stakeholders. As more areas get covered by high speed networks (3G/4G) and beyond the mobile will begin to play an even more bigger role in developing countries by offering innovative services. In this regard it is also important that tax regimes and other impediments that directly affect the roll out of affordable services (Spectrum Costs) are brought down so that it assists in increasing mobile coverage and affordable services are given to the people.