May 19, 2011

Mobile for Poor Countries

Courtney Kaplan's picture
Courtney Kaplan
Principal, Program Planning

The Economist recently had an interesting article about mobile use in poor countries. I think most people have heard of micro-businesses based on selling time on mobile phones, or transferring money via mobile, but I thought the article had a few other interesting examples around health / medicine and opening markets by creating two-way communication platforms.

Late last year mPedigree launched a mobile service in Ghana and Nigeria that could make a dent in the fake-drug trade. People buying medicine scratch off a panel attached to the packaging. This reveals a code, which they can text to a computer system that looks it up in a database. Seconds later comes a reply saying whether the drug is genuine. The service is paid for by pharmaceutical companies that want to thwart the counterfeiters. Hewlett-Packard runs the computer system and found a cheap way to print the scratch-off labels.


In Mali a company called Pesinet gets agents to send in the weight of newborn babies. If the figure falls below a certain level, the baby is examined more closely.

Also, mobile trading platforms are providing a forum for timing markets, selling goods and posting jobs:

Mobile trading platforms are also in this category. At first most of them focused on agricultural goods: Dialog Tradenet in Sri Lanka lets farmers check market prices and text in offers, helping them to time their harvest to maximise income. But many, including Dialog Tradenet, have other things on offer. In India, lists low-skilled jobs. The most popular items on CellBazaar in Bangladesh are second-hand mobile phones. For people with some cash to spare, KenyaBUZZ, one of the larger local websites in east Africa, is selling tickets for cultural and sports events over the phone.

Cutting out the bribe-taking middlemen (beyond cash transfers):

In the Indian state of Karnataka, corrupt officials would often demand a bribe before issuing landownership certificates, which farmers need, for instance, to obtain a loan. The Bhoomi project helps them directly, by using the internet and mobile phones.

I especially liked txteagle, which encourages nurses to submit data for airtime. How to get people interested in supplying information or changing behavior is key to success.

Then there is txteagle, which hopes to reward those willing to perform small jobs on a mobile phone. Its founder, Nathan Eagle, discovered that nurses in Kenya were much likelier to text in the stock levels at their blood banks if they were compensated with a bit of airtime. This got him thinking about whether other tasks could be “crowdsourced” in this way. Today firms use txteagle for translating words into a local dialect and checking street signs for a satellite-navigation service.

Finally, another interesting point… many of these ventures are supported by donor money, but social entrepreneurship muddles demand and need. Just because someone needs it, doesn’t mean there’s a market to pay for it.

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