Accept the Smartphone Reality in Development. Everyone Else Has


Recently, Elvis Mushi of Twaweza, shared with me interesting mobile phone survey results from his Sauti za Wananchi program. I find them remarkable in two ways. First, he found that 80% of Tanzanian households own at least 1 mobile phone. Then he found that mobile phone coverage reached 88% of the population.

One of the largest and poorest populations now has near-ubiquitous mobile phone access.

On the other side of the content, Ghana now joins Zimbabwe in having more mobile phone subscriber lines than people. Other African countries will soon follow. Even grand Nigeria, which has 80% mobile phone usage now, has 15 million smartphones.


But Those Aren’t Smartphones!

I know, I heard you mutter that already. And you are wrong. Each feature phone is already a smartphone, thanks to biNU. They can run “smart” applications, from Facebook to WhatsApp to YouTube, just like any “smartphone.” In fact, biNU found a majority of its users think their phone is a smartphone, when in actuality it is a feature phone.

Even better, small, nimble development actors already know this. Check out WorldReader Mobile, where thousands of Africans are reading full-length books on their mobile phones – African content, written by Africans, for Africans.

But What About the Poor?

Yes, the poor have less mobile phone access. They have less of everything, so why would mobiles be any different? At the same time, be careful how large you make your “poor” group. Twaweza found that even the poorest quintile of households had over 50% mobile phone ownership.

In addition, do you really work with that quintile? As development actors, we may talk about them often, and use them in our propaganda marketing, but we usually work with poor to middle level households or with organizations that serve the very poor vs. the poor themselves.

At the organizational level, everyone has a phone, and therefore a smartphone.

Yeah, But.. the Data Costs!

In a recent Technology Salon, someone bemoaned the uptake of mobile devices by the poor, saying they were wasting too much of their limited income on voice and data fees. Beside the blatant paternalism of the comment, it showed a lack of understanding of mobile phone success.

People have their own agency, and are (usually) rational consumers. If they find value in something, they will pay for it, and shift family resources to do so. The same goes for mobile services. If we design services where our constituents find value, they will happily pay for them.

The success of Safaricom, AirTel, MTN and the like shows Africans love their phones enough to pay dearly for them. Let us be challenged to develop content they want to see on their phones.

Go to Source. Reprinted from ICTWorks

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Is Facebook Zero the Future of Public Internet Access?


Access to information is both empowerment and development. When two thirds of the world’s poor still lack access to the Internet, but three fourths have a mobile phone, it makes sense to try to capitalize on mobile technology in order to increase access and connectivity.

Enter Facebook Zero

The advantage of Facebook Zero is in the name; by waiving regular data charges, Facebook Zero is “zero rate” access to the world’s most popular social media site, which has great benefits for everyone. Facebook cleverly tapped into a new clientele: the billions of poor people in the developing world who already own mobile phones but cannot fork out large sums for internet services.

According to Facebook, the launch of the modified site was an effort to “make the world more open and connected” – precisely the same goal of those concerned with pubic access options in development. On the Asian continent, for example, roughly 6% of the continental population is on Facebook, a figure that is attributable to the cost barriers associated with Facebook’s data charges, as well as general costs to internet subscriptions.


Does Facebook Zero Increase Internet Access?

Full Facebook usage (vs. Facebook Zero) on the African continent doubled every seven months when it first appeared, with the largest number of Facebook users in Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria, respectively. Some of the highest Facebook growth rates were seen in the Central African Republic and Somalia, countries that are often “off the grid” and should be on it, precisely because we want them to be aware of their serious governance and development challenges.

But can we really credit Facebook Zero for an increase in Internet access amongst the poor? While we do not have usage rates for Facebook Zero, there is no denying that Facebook is empowerment.

For many of the poor, Facebook is the face of the Internet, and a source for gathering information and news. Facebook is also a vehicle for voicing concerns and finding like-minded individuals (case in point: the Arab Spring). Interestingly enough, in Ghana, the Electoral Commission posted election results to Facebook, rather than to their own webpage, because they acknowledged that Ghanians go to Facebook to obtain their information.

Is Facebook Zero A Community Space?

Physical access points, like Telecentres and Cyber Cafes, serve as hubs of Internet access, but also, and equally as important, as community spaces. Sure, as a social media platform, Facebook facilitates social interaction between its users, but there is something to be said about the value of face-to-face communication. If Facebook Zero is the future of public community spaces, we may be looking at a future with less physical interaction, which, many, would consider a grave loss.

Facebook Zero is an Inspiration

There are already signs that Facebook Zero has generated a sustainable model for Internet connectivity. The usage of Facebook Zero has given the poor a stronger reason to want access to regular, broadband, so that they may view status updates and photos. Already Facebook Zero has garnered competition, like Google’s “Free Zone” and Wikipedia Zero, and we can be optimistic that, with time, this competition drives up the quality and options of Internet access for the poor.

Above all else, Facebook Zero’s private ownership is an attractive model of public access because it bypasses regulations and rules established by governments. Authoritative leaders often desire to restrict the flow of information and tech freedoms to the poor. But if we believe that the poor have a right to knowing what’s going on in their communities, their country, the world, then access to Facebook Zero is surely a great starting point.

Maria Andersen is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), focusing on international economics & African development

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Is Selling Mobile Phone Airtime Really Entrepreneurship?


Ooredoo and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women made a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to enable 30,000 women by 2016 to become entrepreneurs by selling prepaid Ooredoo airtime to their communities. They will equip each woman with a business kit containing a mobile phone, promotional materials, and an operating manual. The women will also receive hands-on training on how to run their businesses.

When I first head this, I was quite skeptical. I didn’t see how selling airtime was really entrepreneurship, versus a survival tactic when employment options were rare to nonexistent. Yet, research by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and GSMA mWomen convinced me otherwise.


In “Women Entrepreneurs in Mobile Retail Channels: Empowering Women, Driving Growth“, they make a clear case for women’s participation in the mobile value chain and the benefits of such participation both for mobile network operators and for women entrepreneurs.

When we interviewed women participants in the MVC, clear benefits emerged which outweighed the risks. While the profit from the small-scale selling of basic mobile products is not adequate to provide a livelihood, it is helpful as a supplement to other commercial activities due to the steady demand for these products.

Monthly income generated through mobile sales varied across markets, but ranged from USD42 to USD298. Selling mobile products is also a relatively simple business with low barriers to entry, providing women with an easy opportunity to gain experience and business skills as independent entrepreneurs.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Myanmar as these women become more business savvy and the government starts to notice the huge impact all these businesswomen will have on their communities. It will be even more interesting when government and NGOs start to think creatively on how to leverage the mobile channel as a service delivery mechanism.

Go to Source. Reprinted from ICTWorks

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4 Ways to Properly Include Women in Your mHealth Initiative

Social norms and stigmas often lead to men owning mobile phones more often than women in many parts of the developing world. Sometimes when a woman does happen to acquire a phone, she even faces threats of violence because of her ownership. These unfortunate findings show that gender is one of the biggest issues in mHealth and ICT for Development in general. Unfortunately, according to a 2013 literature review, there has not been substantial research about gender relations in mHealth interventions.

My name is Jack O’Rourke and I am a student at Fordham University. I recently traveled to Uganda to conduct research on the following question: how are mHealth groups addressing various socio-economic issues that come with female usage of mobile phones? My resulting research paper helps answer this question, adequately titled “Grappling with Gatekeepers: Addressing Gender Hindrances to mHealth.”

What were the results that I found?

The qualitative approach undergone was two-pronged. After discussing attitudes surrounding female usage of mobile phones with groups of men and women in rural Uganda, I was able to take what I’ve learned and question three mHealth representatives from four organizations (mTrac, U-Report, Text to Change and Health Child). Some of the women’s experiences were tragic. From women being abused by their husbands for the ‘wrong use’ of their phone to not being able to pay for airtime, the problems some of the women faced in Uganda were immense.

Using Deshmukh and Mechael’s 2013 Gendered Framework for mHealth, I was able to analyze the various approaches these mHealth groups were taking to incorporate women into their programs. While the mHealth groups analyzed did a good job on large-scale issues such as the inclusion of women in policy making and the inclusion of men in their programs, gaps still did remain. Some of the approaches came up short in dealing with micro, cultural issues. For example, the use of a male voice for voice messages and late afternoon messaging could strain gender relations in a household.

Deshmukh and Mechael’s FrameworkDeshmukh and Mechael’s Framework

What should be done?

The following recommendations detail what mHealth groups should take into consideration when including women in future initiatives:

1)   Follow the framework set out by Deshmukh and Mechael.

2)   Get on the ground early in order to understand the specific issues pertinent to the community targeted.

3)   Understand the critical issues set out by Deshmukh and Mechael (GBV, engagement of gatekeepers, social/cultural values), but make sure to not ignore the intricacies of certain cultural issues. For example, voice technology can be used to avoid the pitfalls of illiteracy, but a male voice received by a female could cause misunderstandings between a husband and wife.

4)   Collaboration is key. Working together and not treating other mHealth groups as competitors will not only help empower women, it will save time and, in turn, money.

Following these recommendations and creating mHealth initiatives that are sensitive to gender issues should be a priority for all organizations operating in developing countries. And while the issue appears daunting, the past innovation shown by mHealth groups should give hope that the field will be able to deal with one of its greatest challenges.

Jack O’Rourke is an undergraduate student at Fordham University in New York. His twitter handle is @jackorourke.

Go to Source. Reprinted from ICTWorks

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No Electricity Means No Internet: It’s Time to Bridge the Gap!


“I came to Uganda to run the technical side of a mobile phone company. Instead, I was running the largest  diesel fuel distribution company in the country—in order to run the mobile phone company,” says Francis Kazinduki, former CTO of MTN in Uganda. And he is not alone.

This quote, taken from Dr. Laura Hosman and Dr. Laura Elizabeth Armey’s study on “The Centrality of Electricity for Internet Uptake in Low-Income Countries”, is a common sentiment among ICT professionals working in low-income countries. In their innovative study, Hosman and Armey analyze Internet usage growth in diverse locations from Mali to Haiti, and Sierra Leone to the Solomon Islands. What, they ask, is a key factor influencing ICT adoption across all of these low-income countries?

Their answer:  Access to electricity.

Increased distribution of electricity across a nation is a key vanguard to ICT development success. Using dynamic panel data analysis, the two researchers based their findings on a unique data set taken from satellite images that capture the quantity and distribution of light that can be observed at night from outer space. This data set mediates variables such as defining what constitutes access to electricity and protects the study from faulty self-reported national electricity and energy data. While other researchers have used similar data sets for other purposes, this study is the first of its kind to use night-lights to measure real electricity use.

Hosman and Armey recommend pursuing policies that expand the distribution of electricity to greater numbers of people, not just increasing the total electrical output in each country, which tends to prioritize cities. The more people that have access to electricity, the greater demand will be for using the Internet and other related technologies. It is fruitless, they say, to discuss a digital divide where electricity does not exist. Many ICT projects have collapsed because they don’t fully realize the existing (or absent) electrical infrastructure within a country. Addressing the electricity divide between high-income and low-income countries will not only spur industrial and knowledge-based economic growth, but will enable millions around the world to connect online.

The key lesson to be learned? ICT development initiatives must first consider a location’s existing electrical infrastructure before setting up shop. The idea seems simple – it is just often overlooked.

The infographic below is based off the study and was created by Bruce Baikie, Inveneo’s Executive Director. You can follow him on Twitter for more ICT updates at @BruceICT4D.


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What Are the Industry’s Top ICT Hardware Challenges?

You are in a minority. Yes, you.

I single you out because, as you read this article online (perhaps on a phone or a tablet or even a MacBook Pro), you are part of the 40% of the world’s total population that has access to the Internet.

Unfortunately most Internet communication technologies are made for people who are already plugged in with their Android, Mac, and Tablet. This hardware is designed for communities with advanced electrical and connectivity infrastructures and aimed at end-users who are well versed on Internet communication technology. But when the same hardware is implemented in developing world locations where such infrastructure is limited, it often fails.

So what accounts for this recurring failure?

In the following white paper, “Emerging Markets: Top ICT Hardware Challenges”, Dr. Laura Hosman presents the top five ICT hardware challenges in emerging markets. These rankings are based on a series of technology salons, in-depth interviews, and macro-level online surveys of experts, practitioners, academics, and end-users of ICT4D. The paper exposes the challenges and needs of developing communities for their ICT hardware. By addressing these needs with new designs, ICT designers and manufacturers will be better able to reach the 60% of the world’s population who remain unconnected.

A short overview of the top five challenges from the paper:

  1. Electricity/Power/Energy: Extremely low power and long battery life; robust handling of electrical spikes, swings, dips, blackouts, and brownouts; and—ideally—at 12-volts DC to be solar-power ready
  2. Cost: Balance must be found between the lowest cost and solid, reliable, functional technology
  3. Environment-Related Issues: Reliability/ruggedness/durability are all of paramount importance (resistance to water, humidity, dust, dirt, and extreme heat); no moving parts recommended; screens are hard to repair and difficult to read in direct sunlight
  4. Connectivity: Essential to the usefulness of just about any device in any location; is what creates value for entire ICT4D ecosystem: the more connected, the more valuable the network. Main method advocated was WiFi
  5. Maintenance & Support: The best technology needs no support. Transportation for repair, maintenance, and support is expensive. Sourcing spare parts is a challenge. Technology that cannot be locally maintained, supported, and repaired is not sustainable.

The focus on those who are already connected ignores scores of people who are just beginning to go online. By optimizing hardware for developing world locations, ICT designers can expand their reach to new markets while at the same time increase quality of life for millions of people around the world.

The paper was published by Inveneo, written by Dr. Laura Hosman, and directed by Inveneo director Bruce Baikie. The following infographic was created by Eric Zan. Check out his website at

Hardware Challenges Infograph

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New USAID Handbook: How to Integrate Mobile Solutions into Development Projects

The rapid explosion of mobile phone access globally, which has extended to even some of the most remote communities, has set off a rush of interest in trying to capitalize on the potential benefits of this technology for improving development outcomes.

As with anything that generates this level of buzz, some people have rushed to using mobiles for development (M4D) before they have fully understood all of the intricacies upon which their successful deployment is dependent. When those M4D initiatives fail or sputter, they add to the ICT4D graveyard, which is far from empty. M4D failures often reinforce technology aversions of skeptics and technophobes.

FHI 360 and OpenRevolution, with funding and support from USAID’s Regional Development Mission for Asia through the mSTAR project, have launched the “Integrating Mobiles into Development Projects” handbook to address the over-excited, under-planned side of M4D deployment.

The handbook is divided into two sections. The first section is meant to be an in-depth guide of everything you might need to know about mobiles – great for skeptics and dreamers, alike. The second section provides practical tips and information related to integrating mobiles into a project in practice, including our six-step approach to project design.

  1. Identify potential roles for mobiles to reinforce project goals
  2. Determine requirements for using mobiles
  3. Collect data to understand the landscape
  4. Decide if use of mobiles in a project is feasible and appropriate
  5. Validate assumptions and preliminary findings
  6. Integrate conclusions into Concept Paper

Although the primary audience of the “Integrating Mobiles into Development Projects” handbook is USAID staff, much of the content is relevant to implementing partners interested in integrating mobiles into development projects more effectively. We invite you to check it out, use it, and let us know what works for you and what doesn’t.

Josh Woodard is a Technical Manager of the Mobile Solutions Technical Assistance and Research (mSTAR) project at FHI 360, and was an author and technical editor of the handbook.

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