Kimberly Parker

Innovative Mobile Phone Strategies in the Developing World

This post is part of NextBillion’s coverage of the recent Columbia Business School Social Enterprise Conference. Guest Blogger Kimberly Parker works with Columbia Business School’s Social Enterprise Program.

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With the advent of new mobile technologies like smart phones, and an interest in creating sustainable businesses in the developing world, there’s a vibrant and growing market for mobile-based businesses that serve the Base of the Pyramid. At the 2010 Social Enterprise Conference at Columbia Business School, five innovators sat down to discuss their work and the prospects for the BoP.

Spencer Ante, Deputy Bureau Chief of the New York Corporate Bureau of The Wall Street Journal, moderated the panel. He recently covered a CTIA conference, and used that perspective to guide the technology-driven conversation. Time allowed for little discussion, but throughout the introductions we were left with some food for thought.

David Del Ser Bartolomé started off the introductions by talking about his company, Frogtek, which develops business applications for micro-retailers at the BoP. He explained that business owners who lack technology are almost completely in the dark when it comes to running their businesses, and the applications developed by Frogtek are designed to help manage things like accounting and inventory. The phone also serves in delivering a “micro MBA” for the business owners, with tutorials and videos, accounting applications and other ways for business owners to stay on top of their businesses. David also spoke about the possibilities that have emerged due to the iPhone, far outreaching any benefit brought on by a traditional cell phone.

It makes sense. Mobile phones allow us to be in constant contact, but on a one-to-one basis; with smart phones, we have the ability to be in contact with our world at all times. With the iPhone, the information gap can be bridged between the developed world and the BoP, with the possibility for truly transformational change.

Mike Quinn of Mobile Transactions introduced himself next, where he explained some of the basics behind the mobile payments system based in Zambia. He was followed by Martin Hartigan, who after a career with the World Bank Group, has developed the m-card, an innovative mobile payments system designed to bridge the data and information gap that exists in economic development. Martin feels that by making payments real-time, the loss of information and corruption associated with the time lapse that usually follows payments can be erased.

Bright Simons, founder of mPedigree Network, gave a presentation on how his company allows consumers to verify the authenticity of their medications through their mobile phones. Counterfeit medicines have directly or indirectly caused numerous deaths throughout Africa. mPedigree collaborates with the pharmaceutical companies, who lose around 20% of their revenue to counterfeit medicines. In this case business interests intersect with social interests, and the collaboration was a clear choice.

Jason Ellis, a staff researcher at IBM, focuses on developing technologies for underserved communities, like Spoken Web, which makes the information available through a smart phone accessible to the illiterate, and Text to Change, an incentives based program that disseminates health information.

The panelists were asked to address some of the problems they faced in introducing these technologies in developing markets. Did they encounter fraud? Was it difficult to come across capital? Were the consumers at the BoP receptive to these technologies? While their views differed somewhat on if fraud was prominent in the countries they worked in, they all agreed capital could be hard to come by. However, it’s hard to get the optimistic social entrepreneur down, as neither of these factors seemed to affect their decision to pursue these ventures. In addition, they all agreed that their clients were very receptive to the new technologies.

One point, made by Bright Simons, cannot be reiterated enough. He stressed that when you develop new technologies, you are not trying to change the consumer; you are trying to change the manufacturer to serve the consumer. While in context this applies directly to the pharmaceutical companies, it can also be applied to all new business ventures. You can’t develop a product and then convince people to use it; you need to serve a purpose.

Social metrics also came up, a common theme of late. Most of the panel, however, said they received little pressure from their investors at this point to provide any kind of social impact measurement. Frogtek, through their applications, are taking constant measurements, but they haven’t been asked to show these to angel investors to this day.

This reflects on the nature of investments into social enterprises right now. Investments are still being made by the lead supporters of social enterprise, who invest because they believe in the cause. In order to involve more traditional investors, however, metrics are essential to making a case beyond the main supporters of the field.

The resounding consensus of the panel seemed to be that by removing the inefficiencies in the economies of developing countries and bridging the information gap between the rich and the poor, the poorest economies can be improved. The panelists also believed deeply in technology as a facilitator of change.

I left the panel intrigued and excited, as I am sure the rest of the audience did, knowing that we are only seeing the beginning of what mobile technologies can do for the poor.