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.
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.
Another successful example in this space is UNICEF’s RapidSMS initiative: a scalable SMS-based open-source framework for dynamic data collection, logistics coordination and communication. UNICEF currently supports governments across six countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and over 200,000 RapidSMS users in some of the most underserved and rural communities. Frontline health workers who each serve hundreds of women and children make up many of these users. Success in this space is quantified by time, money and lives saved. It is widely used by governments and the international development community, and has also taken off in business communities. For example, in Ghana, a local entrepreneur uses RapidSMS to monitor the sales of cook stoves around the country.
In many countries where the majority of people are unbanked, airtime has become another form of currency. Imagine you need to get a small amount of money to your sister who lives in a village that’s ten hours drive away. The easiest way for you to do that is to buy some airtime, but instead of topping up your own prepaid mobile service you top up hers. For a small fee, she can now go and cash out this airtime with an agent that sells airtime.
M-PESA, a project out of Kenya that was initially set up to distribute micro-loans to and collect payments from the poorest rural communities of Kenya, has now become a large-scale multi-country mobile cash transfer system run by Safaricom in East Africa and Roshan in Afghanistan.