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Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Mobile Technology and Development: How mobile phones are transforming lives in developing countries

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Mobile Technology and Development: How mobile phones are transforming lives in developing countries
by kenlo on 03-02-2012 18:00 - last edited on 31-01-2012 00:42

In the UK, our lives have been transformed by our mobile phones. Smartphones have given us access to the internet on-the-go and we’re increasingly using our phones for shopping, commerce, GPS navigation and more. Meanwhile, the development of international calling and roaming has made it possible for us to instantly get in touch with almost anyone in the world by dialling just a few digits – it doesn’t matter whether they’re in the Great Plains of America or at the summit of Everest. We can even communicate across linguistic barriers with some clever translation technologies.

Whilst mobile technology has led to some exciting social benefits here the UK, the social benefits of mobile technology in developing countries are even more exciting. Mobile phones have been found to be closely linked to economic growth and development in developing countries. Mobile technology is able to develop these social benefits by offering low cost and convenient access to mobile banking, health and educational services and by encouraging trade.

In this article, we’ll explore the role of the mobile phone in developing countries. We’ll look at how mobile banking, health and education are conducted in some developing countries and what that might mean for all of us in the future.

Mobile Banking in Developing Countries

We often take banking for granted in the UK and it’s incredibly easy to forget how important a role the banks play within society. For example, we rely on our banks every time we receive a pay check at the end of the month, every time we pay our utility bills, whenever we buy something in a shop or online and everytime we want to save towards the costs of our child’s university education. Without access to banking services, paying for goods and paying bills becomes incredibly difficult and it’s tricky to invest for the future or for a rainy day.

Many people in developing countries currently lack access to a bank account and the associated services that banks can provide. Poor public infrastructure and low population density means that the nearest bank could be several hours drive away – not particularly convenient for use on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, it can be dangerous to transport large quantities of cash and storing money at home by stuffing banknotes into a mattress is also risky.

In these places, mobile technology has a huge potential to improve quality of life by making banking more accessible. Building a traditional banking network is expensive: there are huge costs associated with laying down new roads, erecting electricity pylons, building reliable electricity networks and building new banks with secure cash storage facilities. In contrast, an entire area could be given access to a mobile-based banking service simply by erecting a new mobile phone mast.

This approach is taken by companies such as Kenya’s M-Pesa. M-Pesa leapfrogs traditional banking services and allows banking to be conducted using SMS text messages. Rather than facing a long drive to the bank, users can transfer money using M-Pesa which travels as quickly as a text message. Over 50% of Kenya’s population is already using M-Pesa and for a variety of things: for example to pay bills, to transfer money to relatives and to pay for goods at the local store. Furthermore, the ease and security of storing money in a mobile-based banking service encourages people to save for their future (e.g. to invest in new machinery or education) or in case of a rainy day (for example a crop failure or a medical emergency).

Through initiatives such as M-Pesa, the mobile phone industry association GSMA hopes that 20 million people earning less than $2 a day will have access to mobile banking by the end of this year.

As well as banking through a mobile phone, mobile commerce is also delivering many social benefits in developing countries. The Google Trader service in Uganda helps rural farmers to find buyers for their goods and to ensure that they’re receiving a fair price for them. This reduces the chance of farmers being unable to find a buyer for their produce and the amount of time spent travelling between different markets.

Mobile Healthcare in Developing Countries

Healthcare is another area where mobile technology has the potential to deliver social by giving people access to medical information and medical advice wherever they live. This is especially true in places where it has historically been difficult to access healthcare in the past.

India’s TeleDoc service was set up to close the disparity between healthcare provision in urban India and rural India. The TeleDoc application links together village-based healthcare workers to specialist doctors who can give rural villagers a remote diagnosis and treatment. The ability to access specialist healthcare locally rather than travelling to the city makes it much more affordable and accessible.

Disease monitoring is another area which has been revolutionised by mobile technology. The Episurveyor data collection application has been used by organisations such as the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and UNICEF. Instead of monitoring the spread of diseases through paper forms as was done previously, Episurveyor allows health information to be collected via a mobile phone and to be reported back instantly over the mobile network. By allowing health issues and the spread of diseases to be monitored centrally in real-time, it is possible to foresee potential epidemics and to stop them in their tracks.

Mobile Education in Developing Countries

Just like how many of us in the UK use our smartphones to look up information such as recipes, product reviews and more, the mobile phone also has an important role in making information and educational resources available to people in developing countries. Without access to a PC and a broadband internet connection (partly due to an unreliable and intermittent electricity connection and partly due to the lack of a telephone line) the mobile phone is the primary way of getting information from the outside world.

The “Farmers Friend” service in Uganda provides a way for farmers to obtain information about planting, harvesting and storing their crops. The service can also answer queries relating to the health of livestock or crop diseases. Offering farmers access to this knowledge base reduces the chance of a failed harvest and the poverty or malnutrition that could result from one. The service also provides weather forecasts allowing better decisions to be made on when best to plant and harvest crops. Increasing agricultural productivity in this way is a key way to get out of poverty.

Beyond the specialist services offered to farmers, mobile operators such as Orange are beginning to make Wikipedia access free over 2G and 3G in parts of the Middle East and Africa. By making information and educational resources available free of charge, the hope is that this will help to improve education levels. However, with only 10% of people in Africa currently owning a mobile phone capable of 2G or 3G internet connectivity, it’s the SMS-based services such as M-Pesa (mobile banking), Google Trader (mobile commerce) and Farmers Friend (agricultural education) which will be in more common use for the next few years.

Your thoughts…

The mobile phone, and subsequently the smartphone, has transformed society here in the UK in more ways than we can imagine. Looking towards the developing world, the implications of mobile technology can be even more exciting. From SMS mobile banking and payment services to remote medical diagnosis and monitoring applications, there are huge opportunities for mobile technology to improve the quality of life in developing countries.

How has your mobile phone changed your life? With developing countries having pioneered mobile banking and healthcare, how long do you think it’ll be until we see those services here in the UK? Can you think of any innovative new mobile applications or services that could help to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals?

Ken Lo writes about mobile technology and the mobile industry at Ken's Tech Tips.

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