Putting some real numbers to the world changing on the mobile

By | May 7, 2012

VentureBeat writes last week on How tech companies are waking up to global responsibilities, opportunities and shares this oft quoted example of world changing,

As investment in social enterprise becomes more common, major brands and venture capitalists alike are learning how to make a difference without sacrificing their profit-driven missions.
Nokia is a prime example. With 51% of the mobile market share in Africa, it’s one of the continent’s most recognizable brands. Lacking televisions, computers — and, in some cases, electricity — many people throughout Africa access information and communicate solely through their mobile phones. Nokia has not squandered this opportunity – it’s using it to extend affordable, life-changing services and tools to African farmers.

Through its Ovi application store, Nokia offers Ovi Life Tools, an SMS-based app available on extremely cost-effective handsets that provides farmers with timely weather and agricultural information to optimize preparedness and crop yields. Nokia partners with organizations like the Kenya Meteorological Department, agriculture NGOs, and more to serve up tips, techniques and market stats that could help them prevent food shortages and get the best prices for their goods. Life Tools is also being used to deliver lesson plans to teachers, learning games to kids and accounting services for small businesses.

Now that I’ve been taking a deeper look at what companies are actually able to do, among these population segments and exactly how successful they’ve been, I have a very large dinosaur bone to pick with this article (and its accuracy).

Lets go back to last month and what Nokia CEO Stephen Elop said in his Q1 2012 Interim Report so that we can be sure of getting our information straight from the burning platform.

Nokia announced an evolution of Nokia Life Tools, now known as Nokia Life, which provides life-enhancing information across the range of Nokia Series 30 and Series 40 products. Since its 2009 launch in India, the SMS-based service has expanded to China, Indonesia and Nigeria. To date, more than 50 million people have experienced its benefits.

Lets unpack this information first before we look at what poor VentureBeat had to write as a message from their sponsors. First, a quick search online brings up 2010 population data from the World Bank for India, Indonesia and Nigeria (we can double it to add China) – we’re talking roughly 1.2 billion for India, 240 million for Indonesia and 160 million for Nigeria or a total of approximately 1.6 or 7 billion people.

50 million “experienced” its benefits (did they pay for the service which is/was supposed to be have a revenue generating business model or is this experience a weaselly choice of words?) – Google calculator tells me that 50 million/ 1.5 billion is  0.03333 or 3% of the population targeted with the service. In the 3 years since its launch, even with the dropping market share, that is an insignificant amount of people to reach given the percentage of the population of each of these countries who live in rural areas, are farmers and are Nokia owners. Taking a low ball market share of 30% of the rural population having Nokia phones and rural/urban divide which is approx 60% of the total still comes to 300 or 400 million people BEFORE we add China. Adding China, we now reach somewhere between 8 to 10% of the population benefiting from the experience. Is it worth the effort and the investment?

Now we go back to VentureBeat – what value does the Kenyan Meteorological Department offer populations in India, Nigeria, Indonesia or China? A little more digging reveals the February press release on Asha from which the Q1 Interim Report has lifted its paragraph directly:

Nokia Life benefits 50 million users
Nokia also announced an evolution of Nokia Life Tools, Nokia Life, which provides life-enhancing information across the range of Nokia Series 30 and Series 40 products. Now with additional relevant services, social elements and fresher look, it’s available first on the Nokia Asha 202 and 203 phones. Since its 2009 launch in India, the SMS-based service has expanded to China, Indonesia and Nigeria. To date, more than 50 million people have experienced its benefits. 
Nokia Life delivers content in the areas of parenting, life skills, education, health, entertainment and agriculture. For example, Nokia Life can help parents focus on children’s physical, emotional and social growth needs, from birth to adolescence. People can also learn English using basic SMS communications, and enjoy ringtones, sport news and trivia.

“Nokia Life services provide an entry to the world of digital content and an internet-like experience for many people who don’t yet have access to data plans” said Dieter May, Nokia’s senior vice president of Mobile Phone Services.

Really? Come now VentureBeat, if you really had a clue about what African farmers were doing online with their mobile phones, you’d think twice about writing this bullshit passed on to you directly from the PR department of Nokia. Since its inception, Life Tools or Life has been nothing less than a PR driven storm in the teacup, with nary a signboard or radio advert or even a mention among the actual populations where its supposed to be making this difference. Each year, I hear about it, the very same phrases with minor upgrades for modernity are used to describe it and the folks in service development in Espoo and Otaniemi parrot their own press releases as proven fact. In fact, I’d reviewed it in September 2009 from India, on a now defunct blog/URL where the response from those claiming to be on the development team left a lot to be desired. However, here’s a snapshot from that experience (here’s the entire folder of photographs):

With all due respect to all the best intentions in the world, until these services are assessed and evaluated as any other profit generating business model, they will end up in the list of “BoP” examples trotted out in each conference, presentation and article on blind faith alone.

Someone prove me wrong about this example please. Show me the download numbers, the SMS quantity sent or an answer to this question languishing on the webz.

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