The Revolutionary Mobile Phone

20 October 2009

The Economist recently published a special report about the impact of telecommunications in emerging markets, a topic that has fascinated me since I visited East Africa in 2006. It had been about five years since I’d been to a developing country and the main thing I noticed was how prevalent mobile phones had become.  Traveling in the countryside between Nairobi and Arusha, I came across a site commonly seen in developing countries: three women washing their clothes in a stream. The difference was that here, one of them was talking on a mobile phone.  When we got to the border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania, hawkers were selling the usual wares of food, drinks and cigarettes but the best selling items were SIM cards and call minutes.  In itself this was remarkable.  I used to keep a list of factoids pinned to my fridge that included a statistic that 75 percent of the world’s population had never made a phone call. Today there are four billion mobile phone subscribers, according to the International Telecommunications Union. Some estimate that mobile phone penetration will reach 100 percent in countries like Kenya and Tanzania by 2013.

The impact mobile phone penetration has had on developing countries has been so remarkable that many commentators have called it revolutionary, likening it to roads and railroads.  Because access to the Internet is very limited in these countries, we are seeing phones and other mobile devices used for applications that go well beyond voice calls. As The Economist notes, one of the most promising areas is mobile banking.  A friend of mine who works in the Central African Republic recently told me that teachers working in remote parts of the country where civil unrest, banditry and lack of infrastructure make the transportation of money difficult,  are already being paid via their cell phones.

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran an article illustrating how mobile phones have revolutionized scientists’ ability to track banana disease and to educate farmers on how to protect their plantations in Uganda. Companies like Qualcomm through their Wireless Reach initiative, are working with partners around the world to develop projects that use wireless technology to empower underserved communities.  One of the projects provided fishermen in Tamil Nadu, India, with a mobile phone application called Fisher Friend which allows them to access crucial information such as weather conditions, where they can and can’t fish, and market prices.  At the remote Kusai Wasi Health Clinic in Peru, mobile technology helps volunteer surgeons who fly in once a year from the U.S. prepare and follow-up with their patients remotely to deliver better care and reduce the risk of post-operation complications.

To this I’d like to add another interesting, perhaps somewhat counter intuitive, development: mobile applications that were originally created for emerging markets are informing applications that are relevant in developed countries.  An article in Fast Company earlier this year called it “trickle-up innovation.”  One area where we will see more examples of this is in mobile healthcare.  A number of companies, NGOs and foundations are putting together innovative projects in this field, including some that use text messaging to remind people to take their medication and provide other basic healthcare information. On October 29 – 30, the Foundation for the National Health Institute is organizing an event called the mHealth Summit to bring together thought-leaders from around the world to exchange ideas, novel approaches and research findings about the role that mobile technology can play in promoting public health and reaching underserved communities. I’m hoping to hear about more ground-breaking applications from there.

Note:  Qualcomm is a client of Hill & Knowlton

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