UNICEF: How The Future of Mobile Lies in the Developing World

Editor’s note: This post was gotten from TechCrunch, and is written by Erica Kochi, the co-lead of Tech Innovation at UNICEF. Her team started UNICEF’s open source RapidSMS platform which has been adopted in developing countries worldwide. She co-teaches a class ”Design for Unicef” in NYU’s ITP Program, and has lectured at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia University on leveraging technology and design to improve international development. All these views are her own.

In less than three decades, the mobile phone has gone from being a status symbol to being a ubiquitous technology that facilitates almost every interaction in our daily lives. One month after the world’s population topped 7 billion in October 2011, the GSM Association announced that mobile SIM cards had reached 6 billion. A 2009 study in India illustrated that every 10 percent increase in mobile penetration leads to a 1.2 percent increase in GDP.

Yet patterns of mobile phone use in developing countries are vastly different from what you see on the streets of New York, San Francisco, and Berlin. This is a market underserved by technologists and startups. This is where the majority of future growth lies, and Silicon Valley has yet to realize the huge economic opportunities for network operators, handset developers, and mobile startups. Where are these opportunities?

Developing Countries are Powering the Growth

China and India account for the majority of new mobile connections, and in developing countries mobile saturation hasn’t yet hit and is still experiencing double-digit growth.

This rapid growth most recently driven from the developing world is surprising when you consider that for the average mobile user, procuring the device costs a few months’ salary. Sustaining this connection generates tremendous value and meets many user needs as they continue to invest often over 10 percent of their monthly income in staying connected.

The explosive growth of mobile in developing countries over the past five years is what prompted us at UNICEF to leverage mobile to strengthen our programmes in 190 countries and territories. Many of UNICEF’s programmes now use mobiles for a variety of purposes. One program ensures that infants are tested for HIV and put on treatment if necessary. Another gathers direct feedback from communities on everything from water sanitation to access to essential medication.

Creativity Despite No Data

For those in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to imagine that 70 percent of all handset shipments are feature phones. Most of these phones go to developing countries. The vast majority of the world, especially in low income and rural areas, is still living the mobile revolution through the constraints of voice, SMS and asynchronous connection.

These connectivity constraints fuel tremendous creativity. For many communities, simple voice and text connections have brought about revolutions in access to financial, health, agricultural and education services and opportunities for employment.  For example, many farmers in rural areas in Africa and Asia use SMS services to to find out the daily prices of prices of agricultural commodities. This information allows them to improve their bargaining position when taking their goods to market, and also allows them to switch between end markets.


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