Rob Katz

Blog Roundup: M-PESA, Paying for Healthcare, $10 Laptop

Between all the travel and other goings on here, I haven’t had my customary quiet time with Bloglines lately.? So I’ll be going through my lists over the next couple days and posting up links and excerpts from the past week or two gradually.? Before we begin, however, don’t forget that IBM’s ThinkPlace Challenge is now open for your contributions!? Check out the press release for all the details, or just browse directly over to the ThinkPlace, register, and starting posting.

1. Ethan Zuckerman on “Ooh, Shiny!” and M-PESA:? Ethan, a Worldchanging colleague as well as the esteemed founder of Geekcorps and Global Voices, blogs over at My Heart’s in Accra.? His post last week argues that journalists tend to fall victim to the “oh, shiny!” complex and therefore report tech stories without enough checking.? This leads him to pine after his lost sense of geekery – worshipping the shiny – in lieu of a more appropriate-tech spin on things.? In his words:

In terms of what distracts me, I think M-PESA and other mobile phone cash systems are pretty much the shiniest things I’ve seen lately. Then again, I thought Dr. Amy Smith’s work on making sustainable charcoal was the shiniest thing at last year’s TED, so perhaps I’ve lost my geeky sense of shiny and adopted some new appropriate technology criteria instead. (?Crunchy?? ?Useful?? ?Dull??) But M-PESA makes me want to go out and start businesses, which is a classic shiny response.Specifically, the business it makes me want to start is a business to allow online payment with mobile phones. If you?re placing an order with Amazon from Nigeria, you may discover that your credit card won?t be accepted. This is pretty common with African credit cards – some merchants are willing to make the tradeoff of refusing legitimate transactions from African nations in fear of chargeback from fraudulent transactions. Furthermore, most Africans don?t have credit cards. Building a network of phone companies who would turn airtime into cash and make payments to venders – a PayPal for the mobile phone set, perhaps – could help open markets for vendors, both local and global, in developing nations.

Of course, another key to this system is making it possible for users who generate a lot of mobile minutes to cash them out – this requires functionality closer to the Wizzit e-banking system being pioneered in South Africa. It’s an interesting opportunity for companies like Safaricom or MTN to start making inroads in banking, and changing the ecosystem in this fashion would open the opportunity for hundreds of other microentrepeneurs in Africa to start selling to local instead of global markets.

2. Acumen Fund on Health, Sanitation: Over at Acumen Fund, Eric Cantor (who is Business Technology Manager) writes about the poor’s willingness to pay for basic healthcare.? Acumen’s been working with ExxonMobil, Sumitomo, an anonymous donor, and MIT’s Poverty Action Lab conducting a randomized trial to determine the correct level of subsidy for malaria nets.? (Hint: not a full subsidy).? It’s a fascinating topic, and very controversial.? Chime in at the Acumen Fund blog; they’ll read your comments – they told me so.?

Eric also muses about entrepreneurs in the Kenyan slum of Mukuru, where there are so few toilets that people resort to using plastic bags and hurling them outside the house at night (they are euphemistically called “flying toilets”).? Now, some enterprising folks are setting up environmentally friendly, sanitary facilities – but face an uphill battle.? Acumen’s helping out.? Eric describes:

Like many of the situations in which Acumen Fund operates, some see tragedy and others see a business model. A cottage industry of private ?ablution facility? operators has sprung up, with going rates between Ksh 2-5 ($0.03-$0.07) to take care of pressing needs or have a shower. The company that took us out today is seeking to help these independent operators provide cleaner, more dignified facilities with proper environmental controls and, where possible, connections to running water. Another is seeking to build bigger, better, cleaner and higher-service facilities to serve this dreadfully underserved market need.

3. $10 Laptop: Finally, Catherine Laine points out an emerging $10 laptop initiative.? Comment at AIDG blog, but be warned that the ever-productive Ms. Laine is off on a 2-week vacation and may not respond right away.

Tomorrow: More on ThinkPlace, and expect more link-dropping.? Side question: did anyone sit in on the Paul Farmer speech at NYU today?? Any blog coverage?