Sunday, 5 September 2010

Enough with pilots, let's get serious and start investing in m-development and m-applications #ict4d #m4d

In March 2009 I wrote a blogpost entitled: Mobile phones: the silver bullet to bridge the digital divide?

18 months later, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates show that over 40 percent of Africa’s rural population has access to mobile phones, that at global level there are 4.6 billion mobile subscribers and ITU forecasts that by end of 2010 there will be 5 billion mobile subscribers.

These numbers make mobile phone the most rapidly adopted technology in history and the only sector that has not suffered from the recent economic downturn.

I’ve been reflecting why despite the well documented socio-economic benefits of mobile telephony, high penetration rates and the above encouraging figures, there are not equally compelling mobile applications for agriculture and for rural development in general?

I keep asking myself, with 500 million small farms around the world, why are not there applications such as M-PESA, Usahidi or Facebook for agriculture? Why have not applications such as Esoko, Farmer’s friend, Google Trader picked up like wild fire and become viral and mainstream like Facebook or Twitter?

More importantly, why has not m-development picked up like wild fire? Why is not the development world using mobile phone and turning it into a service delivery platform since it has the potential of facilitating the delivery of agricultural, financial, health and education services and also has the potential of overcoming isolation, poverty and creating more freedom?

Considering that mobility has become the preferred way of disseminating information because it is affordable and easy to use, I continuously ask myself why are not donor agencies embedding ICT components and m-applications across the board when designing and implementing rural development projects?

I was shocked to see that SIDA report on Innovative Use of Mobile Applications in East Africa did not include AGRICULTURE alongside financial services, governance, employment, education and transportation coordination as having a potential for m-application.

Pilot, pilot and more pilot
Over the last decade or so, governments, donor agencies, NGOs, private sector have designed and piloted ICT for development (ICT4D) projects. We can no longer effort just to pilot. It is high time to roll up our sleeves and start to design and implement sustainable ICT4D project and programmes.

According to the recent literature, the reason why pilot mobile applications fail to graduate to full-fledged comprehensive and sustainable service delivery applications is due to:
  • lack of adequate infrastructure (towers, electricity)
  • interventions not being scaled
  • mobile applications poorly marketed
  • low literacy rate among the target audience of these applications – mainly farmers, fishers, pastoralists, indigenous peoples living in rural areas
  • lack of project sustainability and funding
  • lack of coordination and collaboration among stakeholders across the different sectors
  • general lack of investment in ICT applications by governments and donors
  • lack of charismatic and evangelist leaders who push the agenda forward and attract investors after the pilot is over
I wonder if there are any lessons we can learn from the uptake and success of social media? Namely create demand-driven and locally relevant content and enable users to be both producers and consumers.

Wanted: M-application and m-development
There is evidence that subsistence and smallholder farmers are increasingly using text, voice messaging and unstructured supplementary service data to access information, such as weather forecast and market prices.
At the same time, studies show that poor rural people are willing to spend more or less 50% of their disposable incomes on mobile communications.

Thanks to all the pilots, we’ve learnt that for m-applications to be successful they need to serve multiple purposes and at the same time have a functioning, dynamic and productive mobile ecosystem where different stakeholders are responsible for the following aspects:
  • setting up
  • operating
  • sustaining
  • expanding
The next logical question, is who are the stakeholders. The SIDA cited above1/  lists the following as potential stakeholders:
  • policy makers and regulators
  • mobile network operators and service providers
  • handset manufacturers
  • content providers and application developments
  • government and specific sector players
  • private sector and small and medium-sized enterprises
  • researchers, innovators and consultants
  • civil society and users
Oddly enough donor and development agencies are missing from this list. I am not sure if this was an oversight or whether they deemed that donors and development agencies do not have a role to play or simply are not suitable stakeholders.

While it may be true that donors and development agencies may not be engaged in first person in developing m-applications, however, considering that m-applications are part of the bigger m-development picture, they definitely have an important and strategic role to play, if for nothing else but to scale up the m-application implementation/adoption.

Definitely all the stakeholders and indeed donor and development agencies can:
  • play a role in ensuring the m-applications are usable – there is no use of developing an application with lots of bells and whistles which does not do what it supposed to do, or worse, does not meet the immediate needs of the farmer
  • use the learning from past failures and successes – which means that we all need to get better in documenting and sharing our learning
  • use participatory approach and involve users in the design of the application and content creation process
“Clever people come up with clever ideas”
Over the last decade we’ve seen the socio-economic benefits of mobile telephony on the lives of poor rural people. We’ve seen how thanks to mobile phones those who were previously both socially and economically excluded are now actively participating in the economy and are able to connect with their families and friends. We’ve seen how basic mobile phone supports bottom-up economic development, provides entrepreneurship opportunities and gives a voice to poor rural poor. We’ve seen how mobile phones support the informal sector.

We’ve seen how users have pushed the phone to its limit which has resulted in innovative uses such as integrating M-PESA application with mobile insurance schemes2/ , or Lifelink which allows users to buy water credit with their M-PESA account3/ , or a taxi driver in Zambia using his phone’s internet browser to diagnose diseases4/ .

We’ve also seen how money transfer applications such as M-PESA have created a new banking paradigm and how the “unbankables” today can save, ask for credit and have suddenly become “bankable”.

A 2009 World Bank report, building on the 2005 London Business School study that found that for every additional 10 mobile phones per 1000 people, a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) rises 0.5 percent, states that an increase of 10 percentage points in mobile phone adoption in a developing country increased growth in GDP per person by 0.8 percentage point.

To prove the above points, a recent study by Center for Global Development5/ , states that for example, in Uganda mobile phone coverage is associated with 10% increase in farmers’ probability of market participation for bananas, although not maize, suggesting that mobile phones are more useful for perishable crops. It also states that in Niger the cost of cheapest mobile phone is equivalent to 12.5 kilos of millet – enough to feed a household of 5 for five days -  and yet the farmers are willing to pay this amount to get a mobile phone as this communication tool allows them to access and use information, find jobs and enhance their productivity.

The writing is on the wall, developing countries SEE and WANT mobile phones as their preferred information delivery systems. They see the mobile phone with a laptop lens which allows them to use it for transactions and at the same time provides access to data and information.


Partnerships – private and public sector
Everyone talks about partnering with the private sector. At the same time, increasingly private sector service providers have corporate social responsibility programmes. However, we know that a private sector company will not embark in an adventure if the initiative has little or no prospect for making profit. At the same time, we also know that the priority for private sector company is to come up with innovative products and services to maintain their market niche or to dominate the market.

Another important factor is that the private sector lives on the fast lane and fast track. Government, donor agencies and in general the public sector works within the confines of bureaucracy and this often does not resonate with private sector way of working.

So, quite frankly speaking, I see private and public sector as two separate circles, who are continuously struggling tofind an intersection point. However, the reality is that public and private sector live in different time zones and do not seem to have found their preferred collaboration tool which allows them to seamlessly work together and indeed create a win-win situation!

I also ask myself, if both parties were to find this intersection point, will it be a true partnership among equals, or a tug of war where one dominates and the other has to succumb.

Perhaps we all have to come terms with the fact that this partnership will not be on equal footing. Rather, if we want to achieve the bigger good, we need to abide by the rules of the “stronger” species. This begs another question, can we as development practitioners who depend on public money do so?


How to make m-development a reality
There are no ’ifs’ and ‘buts’ vis-à-vis the need to put m-development on the agenda of decision and policy makers. To do so, as development practitioners we should promote the idea of doing development using digital platforms.

This means we need to engage with, work with and invest in local talents – people who know what their peers want and need. At the same time we need to work on blending old and new ICTs so that we can reach out to the entire “user base”. If we get serious and do this we’ll end up converging what smallholder farmers, fishers, pastoralists and indigenous peoples NEED with what they WANT.

To create a virtuous circle and help poor rural people to come out poverty, while understanding the constraints of rural information economy, development projects need to ensure that smallholder producers are integrated and participating in local, regional and global markets and have access to:
  • price information in such a way that they can make planting decision and not just focus on post-harvest
  • good cultivation practice – pre and post harvest
  • inputs, seeds, fertilizer and pesticides
  • information on improved crop varieties, pest and disease management
  • financial and insurance services
  • weather information
The challenge is to see how we can develop and rollout m-applications and services that meet the smallholder producers needs and cover the entire value chain, knowing very well that there will not be a “one size fits all” application.

For m-applications to be successful they need to use common and popular features and if local capacity is used, they would be able to cater for local needs, contribute to the economy and build local talents.
I am just wondering how long will it take farmers, fishers, pastoralists and indigenous peoples to become content producers and consumers? How long will it take them to develop their dream m-application allowing them to cover the entire value chain?

Can we possibly conceive of connecting farmers, fishers, pastoralists, indigenous peoples from across the globe by giving them mobile phones and 35 hours per week free airtime?

I bet you anything, once they get to know each other and start interacting with each other, they will start both sharing solutions and coming up with surprising and innovative solutions.. I bet you we’ll get some extraordinary and priceless input which will allow the bigger agriculture community to develop and implement a user-driven m-application.

What is stopping us from embarking on this journey? Who will be the brave person, donor agency, government or for that matter socially responsible private sector who will take it seriously upon themselves to get the ball rolling?

It does not take very much, just some will power….. And when there is a will there is a way!!!


1/ The Economist: The Innovative Use of Mobile Applications in East Africa, http://www.economist.com/node/15663856
2/ The Economist: Security for shillings, http://www.economist.com/node/15663856
3/ SIDA: The Innovative Use of Mobile Applications in East Africa, http://www.economist.com/node/15663856
4/ IPSNews: Welcome to my Taxi – Let’s do business with my cellphone, http://ipsnews.net/africa/nota.asp?idnews=52677
5/ Center for Global Development: Mobile phones and economic development in Africa, http://www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/1424175/




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