Posts Tagged ‘ict4d’

The Mobile as a Post Industrial Platform for Social and Economic Development: Top 3 Trends in Africa

Source: CHI2007 “Reach Beyond”

Just over a decade ago, in San Jose, California, I was invited to speak as the Closing Plenary for the CHI 2007 25th Anniversary Conference. The theme was “Reach Beyond”, as this was the 25th Anniversary conference of the Computer Human Interaction society, and as the closing plenary, I was tasked with articulating the vision for the next 25 years of man machine interfaces. This was in May 2007, mere weeks before the launch of the iPhone. That’s important to note, because Apple’s little phone transformed the world of humans interfacing with computers in its own way. You must remember that back then we didn’t really send texts in the United States, and the mobile and it’s role in society had nowhere near the transformational impact it was having in the developing world. mPesa had just begun to catch attention in Kenya – particularly the Central Bank’s – and there were no such thing as apps or smartphones. This is the background and context in which I gave my talk, which sank without a trace in the history of impactful communication ;p

It was in April 2006, that I first wrote about the mobile phone as a post industrial platform, and as a driver for innovation, in its own right. Two snippets:

One of the recurring patterns I’ve been seeing of late is how mobile phones – not just the handset, but the system as a whole, have become drivers of innovation in emerging economies.
Not just in India or China; this phenomena of the handphone – freed from the shackles of state sponsored infrastructure required for landlines in the majority of these developing nations – has demonstrated its effect in improving the micro economy and providing opportunities for the entrepreneurially minded in hitherto backward regions around the world.

Today, 11 years and 4 months later, I would like to highlight the undeniable impact of the mobile platform in Africa’s development story by introducing the top 3 trends that are sweeping across the continent (and capturing global imagination) very briefly in 3 paragraphs below:

  1. Fintech solutions – Whether its mobile money transfers, instant mobile loans, or cross border payments and more complex back-end solutions; the financial services industry is being disrupted by the mobile platform, on smartphones and on feature phones. Mobile technology is rapidly becoming the default solution delivery system for the last mile of money in sub Saharan Africa.
  2. Solar power – This in turn is accelerating the rapid adoption of small solar systems for domestic energy needs in offgrid locations; a new pay as you use or “prepaid” solution for acquiring solar powered products and for charging can be seen to be launched in a yet another African country every month it seems. My favourite example is the solar powered cold room lockers that one can rent via micro mobile payments. In another year, I expect that one could replace the word “solar” with utilities, with the visible increase in solutions for potable water, and a plethora of government services shift online to the platform.
  3. Agritech – From the very basic “farmer information systems”, agritech is rapidly evolving to more nuanced and complex solution delivery via the ubiquitous phone. Whether its using the smartphone capabilities to identify the army worm pest infesting the fields, or decision support systems that let you choose the ideal species of tree to plant, given soil and drought conditions, agritech is a newly emergent megatrend on the mobile for African agriculture.

And the future, the next ten years? What will 2027 or 28 bring about? And, will we still be using the handheld device we have in our pockets right now? I can’t see it yet, but my gut tells me that easy access to powerful computing within reach of each and every one of us is something that will only be transformed but not replaced.

Why am I so excited about an African hair style app released on smartphones?

tumblr_nzd9xeVbDO1qghc1jo2_250Darling, the pan African hair extension brand owned by Godrej of India, has just released an app in Nigeria aimed at helping customers choose their latest hair style on their smartphone. The implications are enormous, imho.

Mobiles are ubiquitious. E-commerce in Nigeria is becoming commonplace. Smartphones are default. The African consumer market is sophisticated in its own inimitable way. The hair extension industry is as informal a sector as you can get. Digital Africa straddles this complexity and exemplifies the Prepaid Economy.

It really should be considered a wake up call to the ict4d & m4d industry to rethink their assumptions on “poor Africans” and their cellphones.

The Truth About Disruptive Development in the Digital Village

After a quick Twitter interaction, I find myself having agreed to write this caveat to Ken Banks’ recently published article The Truth About Disruptive Development published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

So I’ll start by taking a step back to ask myself what aspects of his proposed points make me hesitate with a second thought before whole heartedly supporting the whole concept, unargued?

My immersion in the so called “prepaid economy” or the prevalent purchasing patterns in the informal economy’s lower income demographic, over the past 5 years, helps me to see some holes in Banks’ theory.

What international ICT4D mega million bucks type of initiatives do is in fact a very expensive and elaborate song and dance show around your little developer community, screaming to be heard over the babelfish noise of the global internetworked web of humanity.

That offers a kick start that is not only much needed but about all that is really needed. The problem becomes when increased competition from more experienced entrepreneurs start arriving as expats funded by these socially patient backers.

The other aspect that bothers me is that Banks’ title should be rewritten as The Truth About Disruptive Development in the Digital Village, thus taking into consideration the key constraint and differentiator that this situation may only apply to ICT and not, say for example, agriculture.

So what is the compromise outcome that well meaning global development funding and independent, indigenous innovators can arrive at?

Open lavish offices locally and share a taste of the global mainstream professional culture with up and comers across selected developing nations. It went a long way in changing corporate India’s attitude towards women professionals. I saw it in 1990 at OMC Computers Ltd and then the dramatic difference at Hewlett Packard India in 1996.

This conversation really needs to be taken up further by more people sharing their personal experiences with the table.

Human centered systems design: Navigating complexity through flexibility

Drawing credit: JAM visualdenken

Systems designed for use by communities tend to operate differently from back end or operational processes. Its only natural given the unpredictable nature of crowds. I’m sure there are a lot of people looking into this field, with greater experience and knowledge than I.

However, I bring this up due to a recent event in an online community in which I have been participating actively since early 2007. And this experience made me reflect upon some of the issues that had emerged from the workshop we conducted late in November 2012 on sustainable agriculture value chain development for the lower income demographic in the developing world.

That trust is the key to success for any programme meant for a human population is unarguable.

The challenge is to establish the foundations for gaining, building and maintaining trust, that too with a large community or groups of peoples rather than individuals on a one on one basis. When technology is added to the mix as a mediator for communication flow, then one further layer of abstraction is added to the challenge, that of lack of nuance and meaning that body language and tone of voice, among a myriad other things, add to face to face communication.

Complicating this is also the difference in contextual knowledge – exposure and experience – between segments of the global population. The OECD world and its ilk, aka mainstream consumer culture, have been exposed to and immersed in a far more technological environment full of touch screens, apps, software and the ubiquitious Internet. While mobile phones are increasingly bringing the world to every human’s fingertips, one can hazard a reasonably accurate guess that the majority of the world’s lower income demographic residing in rural regions of the developing world probably will not possess the same or similar level of experience.

Thus, any human interaction system meant to reach this population must embody flexibility and responsiveness, in a consistent, close to realtime way, in order to build and maintain trust with the community. And one way would be to clearly establish the boundaries of the flexibility of the system, that is, the negotiable and the non negotiable. Feedback mechanisms are without value if the system itself is too rigid in its originating design or the responses too random or reactive.

Lowering barriers: Its about access, not the device

When Vanderbeeken sent me a link yesterday about Nokia working closely with Facebook to get the next billion online, it reminded me of this crude diagram I’d constructed back when I was watching this space far more closely than I do now. Twitter and Facebook are the two big names that weren’t even on our radar, although one could argue that neither is a technology provider per se but instead they are the connectors, once people find themselves online.

Reflecting on this diagram now, a full 4 years on, one can see that while there have been bumps in the road for each of the players, they are each still active in this space. Emphasis however has changed. Whereas it used to be more about the mobile operators and the devices i.e. the Nokias and the Vodafones; today its more about the OS and the applications. Particularly of note are Google’s activities with Free Zone – their aim to become a global ISP for the next billions, far more than Microsoft who increasingly seems like a passive player in this segment.

The challenge still remains, I believe, to connect everyone coming online, to each other, just the way the internet enables us to communicate and conduct commerce. That is, while social networks like FB are certainly paving the way in the developing world with attempts to help lower the cost of data, the last formal barrier to complete integration of the planet’s population has yet to be cracked.

On the other hand, one wonders if  literacy per se, may not be the sole barrier among this demographic as much as the intimidation of user interfaces which maybe unfamiliar or strange. There is a natural barrier of contextual knowledge and textual communication ability that services like Twitter and Facebook contain by virtue of their nature. One sees the efforts to focus on what is known as “the third billion” – women, who make up the largest proportion of the uneducated. And they are the ones who probably need this connectivity and all it implies, the most.

Ken Banks wrote something earlier this week after attending the Vodafone Foundation’s invitation only event “Mobile for Good” that highlights a bigger barrier, imo, and that is the approach and attitude of those seeking to serve the overlooked and underserved at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP). Aptly titled An Inconvenient Truth, here are his takeaways from this prestigious seminar in London:

My five takeaways after a day of talks, debates and demonstrations were:

1. Everyone is still excited by the potential of mobile
2. The same projects surface over and over again as proof mobile works
3. Mobile is still largely seen as a solution, not a tool

4. It’s up to the developed world to get mobile working for the poor
5. The top-down mindset is alive and well

Suffice to say, all of these conclusions troubled me as I sat on the train home.

This is true. What is sad is that if I’ve seen this in the 6 short years I’ve been observing this space, Ken speaks from longer and deeper experience.

As the diagram above and the activities and changes seen across the developing world demonstrate, we have come a long way, but its not enough. The emphasis has been on the technology and the cost, rather than the people its meant to be used by. Now its time for that to change if we’re to leap across the divide. As Vanderbeeken would say, we need to be Putting People First.

/this conversation will continue.

Priorities for an internet on the mobile platform for Africa’s prepaid economy

Something that Gustav Praekelt said in the news about access to no-cost information being a basic human right at the Mobile Web Africa caught my attention. There is still a gaping void in services accessible to and customized for the needs of the mass majority of mobile phone owners in the world. The next billion has come online but there’s potential for a few billion more. Five years ago I said,

Imho, we’re in a transitional phase here when it comes to this next generation world wide web of humanity, on many levels, as the ways and means of access online adapts and reshapes itself to the shifts taking place globally

1. Technological – from PC boxes to handheld devices – the other billion will demonstrably be requiring entirely different solutions and platforms for access due to environmental, infrastructural and other conditions

2. Social – from ‘people like us’ to ‘whole wide world’ – from those who were computer literate, educated and had resources to buy a computer and connection to virtually anyone who can make a phone call

3. Economic – from ‘models for consumption’ to ‘models for production’ – business models are already changing as the original models based on consumption of infotainment and bandwidth are better suited for those with purchasing power, its a given that the next billion’s patterns of purchase will differ significantly from the first billion’s.

Marketing of data services is the next holy grail for Sub Saharan Africa’s telcom providers. As undersea cables increase bandwidth and lower the cost of access, there’s a huge opportunity for laying down the foundation of a mobile web, particularly for the African market.

What distinguishes this market distinctly is that its primarily prepaid or pay as you go transaction models, that is, anywhere from 90% to 96% of the mobile subscriber base is not on a contract of any kind.

The data based business models for mobile operators have evolved in the cutting edge of Western Europe’s old, established and vibrant GSM market.  Its fitting that today, 3rd December 2012 is the 20th anniversary of the very first SMS sent, and I notice why it took so long for text messaging to get a foothold:

One factor in the slow takeup of SMS was that operators were slow to set up charging systems, especially for prepaid subscribers, 

 Given that 5 years on, its Google, a search engine website on the original internet, that’s seeking to lower the barriers to access for the next few billions with albeit in conjunction with an operator:

Google has reportedly launched a service in the Philippines that lets people there access certain websites on their phones without having to pay their operator for mobile data.

The service, named Free Zone, provides free access to any site that the user visits via Google Search, as well as various services from the company such as Gmail, Google+ and, of course, Search. The Philippines is only the first of several territories in which Google intends to launch the service.

According to Reuters, the service was launched in conjunction with local operator Globe Telecom, and targets those who have ‘featurephones’ rather than smartphones. Featurephones usually have cut-down browsers these days, although their functionality is more geared towards basic voice and text.

“It’s aimed at the next billion users of the internet, many of whom will be in emerging markets and encounter the internet first on a mobile phone, without ever owning a PC,” Google product manager AbdelKarim Mardini was quoted as saying.

 Their experience will show whether cost of access alone is the only hurdle to be crossed. Not only will things change from country to country, since telco’s all have their own business models such as in the Phillippines where your credit for text and voice expires in 24 hours at the lowest price points.

Its a known fact that the vast majority of the n00bs online are arriving via their very first ICT device, a mobile phone but there’s a paucity of relevant content, hence the popularity of social networks. User generated content that’s relevant is provided by their choices on Twitter or friends and family on Facebook. Its simply another way to communicate and share information and conduct commerce.

Similarly, while donor funded programs attempt a variety of ICT4D initiatives that remain stuck at pilot stage unable to scale, unknown startups can and do become popular in unexpected locations.

This is not to say there has not been progress in the past 5 years towards a mobile web for the BoP, or rather, for prepaid customers who might be rural – the vast majority of the new mobile phone users in this same period. Growth has come from somewhere, as Airtel will inform you.

But given the rapid pace of device and service adoption at the basic level of voice and sms in these 5 years, the concurrent development of a platform for exchange of value – information, goods, commodities, services, barter, trade et al – similar to but not the same as our existing internet usage – has yet to materialize.

If it did, it could be one way to bridge the gap between the formal and the informal, just the way the mobile phone business models themselves are, under the aegis of the operators. 

Sampling uncertainty

This drawing was made by Jeroen Meijer of JAM visual design, Amsterdam, earlier this week during the workshop we held on Monday, November 26th, 2012.

Its a visualization of the chart I use to show how participants were sampled for the prepaid economy project. The axes represent the individual’s ability to accurately predict either timing or amount of their cash flow status, and thus, their ability to plan. By all rights, this should be on the Prepaid Economy blog where this topic has been an ongoing matter for discussion but I wanted to share the communication potential of this format.

Its also a way to segment the undifferentiated masses in the informal economy, where traditional means to segment a population demographic such as income level or education may not be relevant or skew results leading to misinterpretation. What if one could cluster by patterns of cash flow, and thus, consumer behaviour?

User driven innovation planning and strategy in development

It was with feeling of satisfaction that I read Eric Smallberg’s recent post titled “Thankfully, ICT4D is Now About Strategy and Implementations, Not Technovelty” where brings up the lessons from failure and the shift in emphasis of technology based development projects and social enterprises.

He says:

Richard Heeks wrote about the early history of these changes in a paper entitled The ICT4D 2.0 Manifesto. Mr. Heeks explained the difference in earlier attitude between the first programs, and the projects in the field today. Early programs relied upon “technovelty” and focused more on spreading access as quickly as possible instead of on thoughtful implementation. He generalizes the outcome of those early projects into a few words: “failure…and anecdote[s].” Often programs would return with great stories about how technology had changed one individual’s life, without analysis to the larger effects. Past the promotional materials, positive impact became difficult to assess, which in turn led to many projects today being framed by sustainability, scalability, and evaluation.

Reading through, I can honestly say that this applies to all technological innovations aimed at the rural African, the base of that pyramid or for social impact. For most of 2012, I’ve been involved in assessing the current status of a social enterprise in East Africa, and these points from the article resonate:

As speakers talked about their projects, and the effect they had, they all listed off their lessons learned, including:

  1. “Building trust and credibility is crucial”
  2. “Research tech context before strategizing”
  3. “Technology should serve the goal, not be the goal”
  4. “Try to find out if there is an alternative to technology”
  5. “Use the technology that is already in place to limit training needs”

Sounds amazingly like basic advice for user driven innovation, minus the jargon, from the frugal engineer’s point of view (#5 Why reinvent the wheel when first prototypes abound?)

I hope this shift in thinking, as observed among the ICT4D practice, finds a way to influence the startups and social enterprises in more basic services such as cooking, lighting, defecating et al. 

The hidden digital divide: Energy consumption and infrastructure

Photocredit: Niti Bhan, Maua, Kenya Feb 2012

This is an ironbox. It is heated by placing glowing embers of charcoal inside and securing the lid. When hot, it is used to iron clothes. Variations of this design can be seen in use across India’s urban centers where the isteriwallah plies his trade, ironing clothes for a few paise a piece or available for sale in shops in Iloilo City, The Phillipines. The concept remains the same.

This ironbox caught my eye in the North Meru town of Maua in Kenya. It was available for sale at an electrical and electronics store which otherwise displayed colour television sets, home stereo systems and more. Why would a charcoal powered primitive device like this be sold in a modern store like that?

For one, the most common source of electricity to power the home are solar systems and the energy source is far too weak to run a regular iron. And if there’s electricity, then power consuming appliances like irons and immersion water heaters are avoided to save money on the bill.

I’ve covered this aspect of gaps in the infrastructure before but as a driver for innovation. Today, this scarcity acts as a barrier to growth for high tech innovation, an aspect better captured by this interview with a Ghanaian startup founder:

What are some of the challenges you face running a startup in Africa?

  1. Inadequate infrastructural base. For software startups, internet connectivity is inadequate compared to the U.S. This means entrepreneurs have to spend more time doing research and software programming. Even where there is internet, it’s expensive and comes with low bandwidth.
  2. Shortage in energy supply. Startups that can’t afford standby energy generators lose productive hours anytime there is power outage (which is consistent in most countries in Africa).
  3. Low capital investment. Bootstrapping in Africa is not easy and angel investor funding is non-existent. There are a few venture funds but they aren’t adequate enough to meet the demand of startups. In addition, the terms are not favorable for most startups who want to access these funds. Worst of all, financial institutions like the banks charge high interest rates for loans making it difficult for startups to have financial stability.

When something so basic as to be taken for granted by startup founders most everywhere else in the world is considered a challenging barrier for African entreprenuers, it may as well be a digital chasm.