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Posts from — August 2009

Nokia: Banking on financial services

Last November, on the day Barack Obama won the US Presidential elections, Nokia quietly lay their cards on the table and entered the ‘international development’ arena. The launch of Nokia Life Tools – initially a suite of education and agriculture-based tools aimed at the Indian market – was a significant step forward for the handset maker, which had for some time been positioning itself not just as a manufacturer, but also as something of a services provider. Early signs of any shift would have come as little surprise to those who know the history of the company. Nokia are masters of re-invention.

So, something else which shouldn’t have come as a big surprise was today’s news of Nokia’s big move into mobile financial services. There’s clearly a big market opportunity here, and Nokia have partnered with Obopay to take it on (a company they had already invested around $70 million in earlier this year). According to Nokia:

Nokia Money has been designed to be as simple and convenient as making a voice call or sending an SMS. It will enable consumers to send money to another person just by using the person’s mobile phone number, as well as to pay merchants for goods and services, pay their utility bills, or recharge their prepaid SIM cards (SIM top-up). The services can be accessed 24 hours a day from anywhere, meaning savings in travel costs and time. Nokia is building a wide network of Nokia Money agents, where consumers can deposit money in or withdraw cash from their accounts

Image courtesy kiwanja.net Mobile Gallery

Although on the surface the new service may sound a little M-Pesa-esque, there appear to be some crucial differences. Details remain a little sketchy, but Nokia Money appears to be operator-independent, meaning mobile owners on any network can send or receive payments to anyone else on any other network. This would be a direct challenge to many existing models which require users to switch networks, or to be on the same network as the mobile service they’re looking to use. In addition, it looks like Nokia Money users can sign-up without needing to swap out their SIM cards, making up-take of the service considerably more efficient logistically. If this thing were to grow, it could grow fast.

We may not know all the details quite yet – Nokia will reveal more at Nokia World next week – but it is safe to say that this could be pretty disruptive. Last year, during the Life Tools launch, I wrote:

It’s the addition of Nokia Life Tools – agricultural and educational services – which raises eyebrows almost as much as it raises the bar. How will Nokia’s move into providing agricultural data and advice to farmers effect, for example, the operations of Trade At Hand, DrumNet, Manobi or TradeNet? Will they be partners in any Africa-wide venture? (Nokia do seem to be developing a habit of going-it-alone – more recently with their release of Nokia Data Gathering – rather than working with established, existing open source tools)

Image from kiwanja.net Mobile GalleryAlready the most active handset manufacturer in the developing world, today’s announcement well-and-truly places Nokia at the heart of the international development effort. As if (very) successfully designing and building low-cost handsets for emerging markets wasn’t enough, Nokia continue to increase their offering of emerging market-specific services through their low-cost phones. Last year it was agriculture and education. Today it’s financial services.

I’ve never been one for predictions, but this one has certainly come true. Again, writing last November:

So, what next? Nokia develop a mobile payments platform and embed the client into all of their emerging market handsets? Imagine, a single company controlling the entire mobile technology value chain would make interesting viewing. It could well be the answer to the age old fragmentation problems suffered by the “social mobile” and ICT4D space, but would this give the Finnish giant Google-esque powers?

So, should we be getting worried yet? At best, billions of the financially excluded finally get given a chance to enter the financial services market. At worst, M-Pesa’s monopoly in Kenya ends up looking like a minor distraction. Nokia really have taken this to a whole new level. Regulators, on your marks…

August 26, 2009   33 Comments

The ghosts of communications past

Standing proud, but with only each other for company, I spotted these on my way home earlier today.


It got me wondering the last time I used a public post box, or a payphone. Or how many children today have ever used one? How times – and “technologies” – change.

August 19, 2009   8 Comments

VoxAfrica TV on Africa, ICT and aid

VoxAfricaLast week I was contacted by the Production Co-Ordinator at VoxAfrica TV, a Pan African, bilingual, independent TV channel which broadcasts throughout the African continent via satellite. Following Michael Joseph’s recent comments that mobile technology has had a greater impact on Africa’s development than international aid, the producers were keen to explore the state of ICT across the continent, and I was invited to take part in a live broadcast with another guest, Tunde Adebayo, on Sunday evening.

The one hour programme – “Shoot the Messenger” – was hosted by Henry Bonsu, and features appearances from Tim Unwin (Royal Holloway), James Mbugua (Radio Africa), Samuel Burke (Hearts to Africa) and Mariéme Jamme (SpotOne Global Solutions Group and Africa Gathering).

The video is also available on the VoxAfrica TV website.

August 17, 2009   89 Comments

Enabling the inspiration generation

During one of my many epic walks around Palo Alto last week, I stopped and tapped this into my phone:


Let me explain.

When I started out in mobile almost seven years ago, there were very few people working in the space, which meant there were very few people to turn to for support, guidance or advice. In fact, there were so few people with any meaningful experience I was offered my first major piece of mobile work based on my IT knowledge and conservation/development experience alone. Today, there would have been dozens – if not hundreds – of applicants for that job and it’s unlikely I’d have stood a chance.

But getting a chance is what it’s all about. When kiwanja.net officially came into being towards the end of 2003, it took me almost four years to get any serious traction, let alone funding. Emails went unanswered, requests for charity-rates at conferences were snubbed, begging letters to mobile operators and handset manufacturers were blanked. It may be hard at the top, but it’s harder at the bottom. That’s why, today, I never forget what it was like when I started out. And that’s why I never take anything for granted, and why I never forget to make time to help students, researchers, NGOs, organisations – anyone from all walks of life, in fact – who find themselves working their way off that first rung of the mobile ladder.

UN Youth AssemblyLast Friday I attended the UN Youth Assembly in New York. If there’s one thing I love – other than having my own name plate, of course – it’s talking to a room full of fearless students. I spent the best part of this morning following up on their emails, the fallout of my short talk on kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS.

If we can help anyone on their journey, then we should. Whether that be giving advice or a positive critique on an idea, helping raise awareness through blog posts, giving tips on fundraising, making introductions to other projects and people with the same interests, or offering to be a future soundboard as their ideas grow and develop. These are all things I didn’t have when I started out, and using them productively now that I do is one of the biggest contributions I believe I can – and should – make to the future growth of our discipline. Our legacy shouldn’t be measured in the projects or tools we create, but in the people we serve and inspire.

In the mobile world we talk a lot about project sustainability, but little about human sustainability. If we’re to have any chance of ongoing success then we need to attract the brightest young minds to the “mobile for development” field, and then give them all the support they need to keep them there. Empowerment isn’t just something we do in a distant land. There’s plenty we can be doing on our own doorstep.

It’s a different kind of empowerment, but that doesn’t make it less valuable. If anything, it’s more so.

August 12, 2009   65 Comments

Outreach, health and SMS in Ukraine

Earlier this year, IATP Ukraine launched three pilot projects using FrontlineSMS. In this, the thirteenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Yuriy Selyverstov – the Dnipropetrovsk Representative from the Internet Access and Training Program (IATP) – describes two of the projects

Tamarisk, a Ukrainian NGO,  plays the key role of resource center for local third sector organisations in the Dnipropetrovsk region. It organises and conducts training for NGOs, and hosts joint round table events for mass media, local authorities and other NGO representatives. Because of this it is important that Tamarisk be able to inform their target audiences about upcoming events. E-mail lists, a web portal for local NGOs, phone calls, and personal contacts have been traditionally used for this purpose.

Tamarisk NGO gathering. Photo: IREX

In March this year, Tamarisk – in co-operation with the IATP program – launched a pilot project that uses FrontlineSMS to disseminate information to target audiences via SMS. By June there were over a hundred NGO subscribers with additional numbers being added regularly. Subscribers are organised into several groups depending on the field of their activities, and since the start of the project over 300 messages have been sent. The effectiveness of SMS sending is well illustrated by the International Renaissance Foundation, who held a presentation at the Tamarisk offices in April. About 60% of the participants found out about the event via SMS.

The following conclusions were drawn after the first three months of using FrontlineSMS:

  • Almost all SMS messages were read compared to e-mail, which is not checked regularly by many NGOs
  • Bulk SMS sending saves time in comparison to phone calls or personal contact
  • SMS did not exclude other traditional tools for disseminating information, but complimented them very effectively

Tamarisk now plans to increase the use of FrontlineSMS in its work.

In the second project, “Doroga Zhizni” (Road of Life) applied FrontlineSMS in the field of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis transmission prevention and treatment. The target audience are injecting drug users and former prison inmates.  “Doroga Zhizni” is part of the all-Ukrainian “Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS“.

"Doroga Zhizhi" Manager Iryna Pryhodko. Photo: IREX

For two months starting in March 2009, a pilot group of users with mixed HIV/TB diagnosis received scheduled text messages twice a day reminding them to take their pills. After the two months were up, feedback was collected from the group asking their opinion about the effectiveness of the service. In total, 90% of the group replied that SMS effectively helped them not to forget to take their pills, and that they wanted to receive SMS in the future. Only 10% said SMS was not helpful. Overall, 50% of the group noted positive psychological benefits – the messages made them feel that they were not alone and that somebody cared about them. The project concluded that FrontlineSMS was effective in improving patient adherence to prescribed treatment.

“Doroga Zhizhi” now plan to recommend using SMS reminders with all of its clients, starting this summer. To make this scaling possible they plan to request additional funding from their donor to cover the cost of the messages.

IATP is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by IREX, an international nonprofit organisation that delivers cross-cutting programs to strengthen civil society, education, and media independence in more than 50 countries

Yuriy Selyverstov
Dnipropetrovsk Representative
Internet Access and Training Program (IATP)

August 10, 2009   84 Comments

11 days, 12000 miles, progress, and sheep.

Eleven days and 8,500 miles ago I stepped on a plane to Washington DC (I’m about to do a final 3,500-odd miles back to London). It’s been a hectic but very productive few days.

To kick things off, I spent a couple of days with the Institute for Reproductive Health helping them design a prototype “standard days method” texting service using FrontlineSMS. It was exciting and interesting work, and I’m looking forward to following their future progress.

The following day saw me speak to around 150 leaders from Latin America who had gathered for a workshop at George Washington University. It was the first time I’d spoken to an exclusively foreign audience accompanied by a live translator, but at least I now know my jokes translate well. Next I headed to the west coast and spent the weekend working with an interesting bunch of computer scientists who had gathered at Berkeley. You can read my thoughts and reflections on that in a blog post here.

UN Youth Assembly

After spending a couple of extra days catching up in Palo Alto and San Francisco (one of my favourite places for taking photos, incidentally), I headed back to Washington DC to speak about innovation on a panel at the UN Youth Assembly. It was the first time I’d been to the UN, let alone spoke, and it looked and felt exactly as I’d expected (see photo, above). It was a great experience, and after the short talk I was totally cleaned out of \o/ badges by the delegates.

Today saw a final – and slightly random – parting event when I featured on the BBC “Test Match Special” cricket website, which had earlier in the day been discussing the demise of Tophill Joe, a championship breeding sheep. The image (below) comes from an earlier tweet of mine in the week when I saw what can only be described as a “niche” publication in a bookshop in Palo Alto, California.

"Beautiful Sheep"

It was a nice way to end a fun and productive – if not tiring – eleven days on the road and in the air. Next stop Cambridge, i.e. home.

August 8, 2009   7 Comments

Computer science, meet global development

What happens when you put computer scientists, user interface (UI) specialists, human-computer-interaction (HCI) designers and non-profit work together? You get ICT4D, surely? Well, maybe not as it turns out. I just spent the weekend trying to help figure out that very question at a gathering at UC Berkeley, where people from all backgrounds got together to discuss the role of computer science in global development.

I particularly enjoy workshops which bring together a mixture of people who might not ordinarily get together. On the one hand there were out-and-out computer scientists, techies and members of academia from universities all around the world, but on the other a range of people who occupy something of the middle ground. People such as Gary Marsden, Mike Best, Nathan Eagle, Kieron Sharpey-Shafer, Jonathan Jackson and others.

It was a fascinating two days. Here are a few thoughts on the tweets, tensions and takeaways from the event.

Tweet #1

It became apparent early on that there were ‘tensions’ between high-tech implementations and a need for solutions to be ‘appropriate’, i.e. simple to adopt, use and maintain. It was noted that many computer scientists – given the choice – prefer to tackle problems that are more complex, but this didn’t mean that the end solution had to be.

Tweet #2

One of the bigger obstacles was the lack of developing country experience among many computer science students and graduates, and this was seen as a major problem for the discipline. To be fair, this situation exists in the wider ICT4D and mobile fields, too. It was noted that some of the more interesting work originated from people with field experience, and that many computer science students soon realised that their earlier ideas were doomed to failure once they’d had a chance to visit the places where they hoped to implement.

Tweet #3

A question that didn’t end up being asked openly, but one that Kieran whispered to me during a wider discussion. It turns out there are all sorts of loaded terms in ‘ICT4D’ – should it be ICT in development or ICT for development, for example, and how are we defining ICT and how are we defining development? This is one I’m happy to let others thrash out.

Tweet #4

One of the more fascinating and probing questions, this time from Tapan Parikh, one of the workshop organisers. It wonderfully encapsulates one of the bigger ‘computer science for global development’ dilemmas. Does it chase down the best and smartest technologies, or simply go for solutions which promise the biggest and widest impact?

Tweet #5

Anyone who knows me will know why I make that choice. There are too many organisations spending significant amounts of time trying to stay alive and relevant, and it detracts from where their real focus should be – impact on the ground. Many of the people I know in the NGO world have dedicated their lives to their work, and they’d gladly stuff envelopes or flip burgers to keep on track. As soon as funding and ‘ownership of a space’ become higher priorities than the work itself, alarm bells begin to ring.

Tweet #6

One of the more fascinating people at the workshop was Anil Gupta, who runs the Honey Bee Network (an Indian version of AfriGadget, I guess). Anil gave an inspiring and passionate speech about the importance of grassroots innovators, and among many of the takeaways was his challenge to the proponents of scale. (If enough of us say it, maybe people will take notice).

Tweet #7

You can generally tell when things are beginning to seriously drift off-topic when people call for more conferences as the solution. I think we need to learn how to make more of the ones we’ve already got, thank you.

Tweet #8

Towards the end of a very productive two days, a topic which I expected to be deep and complex turned out to be deeper and more complex than even I expected. Just like a babysitter who hands the baby over at the end of the evening, I was grateful not to have to deal with some of these issues as I headed out the door. Sometimes it felt like there was never going to be an easy fit, but there were some very smart people in the room.

If anyone can work through these problems, they can.

August 6, 2009   41 Comments

[Photo] opportunities

The San Francisco Bay Area. Open your eyes to a world of [photo] opportunities…

"Taking Flight". Photo: Ken Banks

"Half Moon Bay". Photo: Ken Banks

"Eye in The Sky". Photo: Ken Banks

"Branching Out". Photo: Ken Banks

"Sky Sculpting". Photo: Ken Banks

More images on kiwanja’s Flickr pages. Mobile-related images are available in the Mobile Gallery.

August 5, 2009   10 Comments