Scary Spice

While most of the delegates here at Mobile World Congress have been busy fighting over next-generation GPS-enabled phones, playing with Nokia’s latest N-series or scrambling to get their hands on an Android-powered device, I went out in search of something a little more spicy.

During one of my recent trips to Uganda, I bought a ZTE handset from a street vendor. It was pretty basic, as you would expect for a phone which costs a little over $20 new. As much as possible had been stripped out to make it this price competitive – no browser, no data capability and no Java, and a monochrome LCD display with a bulk-standard orange backlight. But it worked, had good battery life and had four of the key functions demanded of a phone in this kind of market – a phone book and an alarm, and the ability to make and receive calls, and send and receive SMS. I thought this was about as basic as it could get – after all, what else could you possibly strip out to make it even cheaper?

Well, this week in Barcelona I may have found the answer. And the answer is, apparently, the screen. Spice Mobile have launched what they are calling “The People’s Phone” in India, and plan to roll it out in Europe by the summer. And it has no screen. At $20 (ironically, around the same price as my ZTE) it’s billed as a device which promotes “the power of the spoken word” and is designed for illiterate or visually impaired users. It boasts voice response technology, long battery life, a braille language keypad and a universal charger.

Could this be the future of “handsets for the masses” in developing countries?

kiwanja at Mobile World Congress 2008

This week I’m making my first appearance at the Mobile World Congress event – formerly 3GSM – in Barcelona, thanks to support from the GSM Association itself and the MacArthur Foundation, who are funding me through my FrontlineSMS project. Although predominantly a commercial event (in other words, crowded out by the big, and aspiring-to-be-big players in the global mobile industry), there’s increasing interest in the use of mobiles in the non-profit sector, particularly in developing countries, and this is reflected in kiwanja’s invitation to present at the Society on the Move track on Day Two. There’s also the Global Mobile Awards with its own ‘Bridging the Digital Divide‘ category, which I was honoured to help judge this year. These are exciting times, and it’s great to be part of a growing movement and to have the opportunity to fly the grassroots NGO flag at leading industry events such as this.

It’s going to be a fascinating week. This is my schedule so far:

Monday February 11th
Attending the VIP screening of Mobile Planet. Produced by the GSMA and TelecomTV, Mobile Planet is the first film to bring to life the extraordinary social and economic impact of mobile communications across many diverse countries of the world. I’ll also be meeting with the producers of the film, and hope to explore opportunities to help TelecomTV expand its reach further to cover more of the grassroots NGO use of mobiles in the developing world. I hope to get hold of a DVD of the film, so if you’re interested in seeing it get in touch

Tuesday February 12th
Discussing the application of mobile phones in the NGO sector, the many uses of FrontlineSMS around the world and the global response to the nGOmobile competition at the Society on the Move track, which focuses on the social and economic impact of mobile technology. Mike Short, who will be moderating the session, is Chairman of the Mobile Data Association and VP of Technology at UK carrier O2. He also happens to be a judge on kiwanja’s nGOmobile competition, the winners of which are being announced on the eve of the event. Talking of competitions, later in the evening I’ll be attending the Global Mobile Awards ceremony, along with many of the other judges, at the National Palace in Barcelona. Hosted by UK comedian Graham Norton, it promises to be an ‘interesting’ evening (keep it clean, Graham!)

Wednesday February 13th
Attending an invitation-only working lunch to hear about the work of the GSMA Development Fund and the Vodafone Group Foundation (VGF), which both seek to promote the use of mobile technology for social and economic development. kiwanja’s early work on wildlive! and t4cd were both funded by the VGF, as was the 2004 study on the application of mobile technology in international conservation and development

Thursday February 14th
So far a free day, during which I hope to get the chance to tread the conference floor and connect with companies and organisations interested in emerging markets and/or kiwanja’s work (for either commercial or philanthropic gain), and to grab as many free USB sticks, rucksacks and mobile phone holders that I can get my hands on

Anyone who’s around and wants to meet, feel free to fire me an email with a contact number, and I’ll get back to you.

Early morning. Bushbuckridge. September 2003

Women begin their long wait for water…

I use this photograph a lot, particularly during my “Keeping it Relevant” talks. It was taken back in 2003 during one of several research trips to South Africa and Mozambique for the Vodafone t4cd project proposal, and the “Mobile Phones: An Appropriate Tool for Conservation and Development?” report, which I co-authored with good friend and colleague Richard Burge. Looking back, 2003 seems remarkably early to be attempting something like that, and it was indeed challenging at a time when mobile phones were only just beginning to show their potential. We even discussed an idea for mobile payments, although this didn’t get into the final document. If only I’d had the time and resources to explore that one…

I wanted to use this image on the front cover of that report, but was voted down in favour of a more ‘traditional’ photo. Most people just never got what a picture of women queuing for water had to do with appropriate technology.