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Mobile Technology in Grassroots Development

April 2017

Natasha K.

A consistent element shaping growth around the globe has been the expansion of mobile technology, and innovations in mobile communication. From simple SMS-based data accessible by farmers, to smart-phone enabled applications supplying important on-the-ground data in emergencies, mobile technology continues to be a vital tool as more and more users, even is remote areas, are able to access mobile phones. Arguably, advancements in mobile technology and expansive networks have transformed and enhanced development throughout Africa, creating innovative and practical models that may provide similar impact around the globe.

 

In Africa alone, the mobile penetration rate is around 38 percent, with over 330 million unique subscribers.[1] Organizations like the GSM Association (GSMA), an operator-led trade organization representing mobile providers’ interests worldwide, aids in supporting the advancement of mobile development solutions and bringing information and communications technology (ICT) to unconnected communities. Some of the supported projects, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) include agriculture, utilities, mobile money, health, disaster response and aiding women’s digital and financial inclusion. Innovative local developers and organizations are encouraged to seek out various streams of funding to aid in development of mobile technology tools. The GSMA model provides for commercial sustainability, which can arguably lead to easier increases in scale. However, the focus on creative solutions raises concerns about the ability of these funders to provide sufficient support for adequate and sustainable development beyond innovation.

 

For over a decade, an increasing number of countries have been utilizing mobile phones to pay for goods and services, something that the ‘developed’ world has been slow to adopt.[2] One of the most famous mobile projects is the mobile banking platform, M-Pesa. Developed by Vodafone for Safaricom, it was first launched in Kenya in 2007. M-Pesa enables users to deposit money into an account stored in their phones, transfer money via SMS, and gives access to banking to those who have otherwise never been able to use banks. It has become a model for similar platforms throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as expanded to parts of Europe and Asia. Easily allowing those in even the most remote communities to send, receive and save funds. The development of M-Pesa fell out of the scope of traditional banking regulations and fees, creating an accessible and affordable platform reducing the barriers to inclusion formal banking systems were unable to.

 

Similarly, Farmerline, a startup from Ghana, with support from development partners, has been able to provide mobile services that communicate timely and relevant agricultural information (weather alerts, best farming practices, financial tips and market prices) to over 200,000 farmers throughout West Africa. Using both voice and SMS delivery in a variety of local languages, Farmerline utilizes mobile technology to build supply and value chain solutions to improve the agricultural outputs of rural smallholder farmers in Africa. It has worked directly with over 5,000 rural farmers in seven regions of Ghana to improve livelihoods through the dissemination of educational content, improving yields by more than 50% on average.

 

Beyond commercial applications, mobile platforms can also be used to mobilize civil society and engage communities. FrontlineSMS, software created to lower barriers to positive social change using mobile technology, supported ReclaimNaija, a grassroots engagement platform seeking to promote electoral transparency and democratic governance across Nigeria. This system aided by creating a reporting platform that allowed a broad-based national network of grassroots NGOs and supporters to feed election data into a centralized mapping platform. The support of FrontlineSMS enabled the group to promote electoral integrity and democratic governance by improving transparency and promoting participation. This platform, combined with ReclaimNaija’s social media work, allows them to connect with a country-wide audience to ensure oversight in the electoral process and governance.

 

In addition to platforms that improve economic growth and political participation, mobile networks can also fulfill a valuable communications need in times of emergency. The We Care Chile campaign, recently launched by Chilean mobile operators, aims to strengthen communications and information access for those affected by crisis, aiding in humanitarian response. Campaigns like this remind us of the importance mobile communications play increasing connectivity, especially with regards to emergency response and disaster preparedness. Mobile technology can provide a lifeline and security, provided they are affordable and accessible for everyone.Bottom of Form

 

So then, with the advent of increasing numbers of versatile mobile platforms, a global focus on sustainable development,[3] and private industry investors, how can this aid grassroots development? Knowledge is power. And local knowledge is key. Without understanding local contexts, effective solutions cannot be achieved. Access to tools similar to Farmerline or Manobi, allow famers and fisherman to get updates on market prices, weather, disease and other pertinent information to increase yields and profit. They meet a local need more efficiently and directly than radio and newspapers have in the past. Programs like these only work if the local needs are driving them and the targeted audience has access to receive communication. But their success gives us insight into models that can be tailored and adapted to other communities and contexts.

 

Mobile technology can link communities together, connect families and services, improve access to information that can be valuable for any trader, aid in disaster response, and provide access to funds and information that can lead to economic growth. There are numerous criticisms and concerns about the application of this technology in grassroots development as well as around accessibility. Harnessing mobile technology can aid in bridging the gap of inequality, but it has to be available even in rural settings and be affordable. The expansion of mobile technology, and innovations in communication have the power to transform grassroots development, enabling communities with creative ideas to develop inspired solutions. Those funders fostering innovation also need to support the growth of platforms to provide for developing the sustainability of approaches that can have far-reaching impact as mobile networks expand and become even more accessible.

 

[1] Aljazeera. (n.d.). Connecting Africa: Africa Mobile as a technology platform. Retrieved from Aljazeera: http://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2016/connecting-africa-mobile-internet-solar/mobile-connecting-africa.html

[2] Banks, K., (2013). Reflections on a Decade of Mobiles in Development. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development. 2(3), p.Art. 51. DOI:http://doi.org/10.5334/sta.cm

[3] The Sustainable Development Goals launched by the UN in 2015, include Goal 9: To build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation. This goal encompasses a focus on the growth of access to ICT, allowing those previously unconnected to join the global information society.

About the Author

Natasha is and experienced international development project manager and consultant based in the UK. She has worked with a variety of donors, including USAID, DFID, Danida, Sida, The MasterCard Foundation, Gates Foundation, and Oxfam. She believes in the power of communities to drive successful development processes that meet their needs.

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