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Mobile Phone technology is changing the way communities in developing nations are interacting with the world around them.
What did you pick up before you left the house this morning? Wallet? Keys? Lunch? Most probably you also picked up a mobile phone as well. In the West, children as young as six years old regularly use and carry mobile phones so that their parents can keep tabs on their whereabouts at school and beyond during the day. In fact, over the last 20 years, mobile phones have moved from luxury to ubiquitous necessity with a rapidity not seen since the explosive spread of electric power in the early 20th Century.
Interestingly, as the phones have become more complex and capable, we are actually using them far less often to make voice calls. Text messaging, emailing and accessing the Internet have become the primary uses of many of these devices. And it’s these services that are unlocking untapped potential in developing countries across Africa, Asia and South America.
Because they use radio waves broadcast from tower to tower, it’s easier and often cheaper to set up mobile phone networks than to rig up the cables, routing switches and other infrastructure that a traditional landline phone system requires. It’s also much faster. Which explains why rural villages across countries like Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and beyond are connected to mobile phone networks even though they may not be connected to the electricity or water supplying grids.
In communities like these, basic activities we take for granted, like baking your income or filling in tax or subsidy forms, are hard to access or require lengthy and expensive travel to regional centres.For example, in many African nations, low incomes and heavy bureaucracy exclude many from the banking sector, forcing millions of people to carry cash and store it in their homes, leaving their wealth vulnerable to robbery and natural disasters.
Mobile phones are changing all this. While mobile payment systems are in their infancy in most nations – Japan being a notable exception – e-cash (electronic cash) services are widespread in countries like Kenya and Uganda and simply use the same pay-you-go infrastructure that the mobile providers use to allow users to add more credit to their phones.
In essence, the phone becomes an electronic wallet. Cash is exchanged at your local top-up shop for a code that places an electronic equivalent in your phone. You can then pay for goods or services by sending the relevant amount to the vendor’s phone or account. Or you can send cash to friends and relatives in other parts of the country. At any point, the money can be swapped for real cash at any top-up store.
E-cash is even helping to create micro-economies. At a local and village level, where cash may be in short supply, transfers between village relatives are revitalizing local commerce, and enabling people to settle very small transactions quickly and efficiently.
And this is only the tip of the revolution. Microcredit agency Grameen Foundation is also trialling various smartphone schemes in countries as disparate as Uganda and Indonesia. Recognizing the power of the Internet and information connectivity to farmers and producers in developing countries, the company’s Applabproject is putting smartphones into the hands of communities with a suite of apps specially designed to increase incomes, improve access to health care and connect them to the wider world.
By training what it calls Community Knowledge Workers in smartphone use, the project can benefit entire villages. In Uganda, access to meteorological data allows farmers to plan more effectively around weather conditions and predict crop rotations according to the likelihood of drought or excessively wet microclimate conditions. Similarly, transmitting photos of diseased plants to regional centres enables rural farmers to access expert advice that can avoid crop failures.
In Indonesia, another pilot scheme, called ‘Kerjalokal’ lists daily job vacancies by geographical location, enabling casual or day labourers to more accurately plan their employment. While these projects may look simple, their effects on communities can be profound. Even a modest increase in income can mean food and energy security for low-income families. They provide a payment mechanism for the bottled natural gas that is the mainstay of thousands of communities that lie beyond the reach of national grids for both heating and cooking.
And they can improve national infrastructure. By raising incomes and providing secure means of storing and using their money, these modest mobile technologies are helping to raise national incomes and revenues, allowing them to invest in the kinds of national infrastructure projects that could eventually bring gas and the electricity it produces to their front door.