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Nokia next in line for an about-turn?

Two years ago Nokia had a global smartphone market share of around 29%. That number has fallen to around 3% today, despite the smartphone market more than doubling over the same period. Nokia’s CEO, Stephen Elop, bet the family silver on a Windows-based strategy and gave it two years to pay off. Well, two years have passed and sales of 4.4 million Lumia’s have disappointed analysts and markets, and likely him.

But it’s not all bad news. In the same period Nokia sold almost 80 million ‘dumb phones’, down on the previous year but clearly a market where they remain strong. What are the chances Nokia will drop it’s Windows strategy and put everything into lower-end devices for emerging markets? The Asha is doing pretty well there, and may be it’s saviour. Telecom TV have a great analysis of Nokia’s options – “Is Asha the future for Nokia?” – which you can read here.

Big tech companies have made embarrasing U-turns before. In 2011 Hewlett Packard announced it was going to sell its PC and tablet manufacturing units only to change it’s mind later. And last summer Apple decided its withdrawal from the EPEAT environmental ratings scheme was probably not all that clever and decided it wasn’t going to leave after all.

Nokia look like two businesses at the moment. At the high end of the mobile market they’re clearly struggling with little to cheer about. At the low to medium end they’re in a totally different position. Overall, Nokia are struggling, and it’s sad to see. If they’re to survive they may need to be brave. Perhaps a U-turn is what they need. And if they decide they need one, they won’t have been alone.

January 29, 2013   1 Comment

Time to meet the real M-PESA?

m-Pesa? m-PESA? mPESA? MPESA? mpesa? Putting the actual spelling to one side for a moment, there can be few more talked about yet least understood mobile services than M-PESA (yes, that’s how you’re supposed to spell it. I think). Misunderstanding, misinformation and, in some cases urban myths abound – everything from its roots and implementation to the percentage of Kenyan GDP now passing through the service. Despite this, M-PESA has come to dominate discussions in the ICT4D and m4d communities (despite arguably not being a development tool at all. But that’s another debate).

M-PESA has become so dominant, in fact, that we’re now at the stage that in increasing numbers of meetings, workshops and conferences I attend, any talk of it is banned.

M-PESA is an undeniable Kenyan success story, but not for the reasons many people think. The technology component of M-PESA was developed far away in Cambridge, England (my home town) with UK Government and Vodafone money. M-PESA is not a Kenyan or African innovation if you measure it in technology terms. But technology is often the easy bit, and what does make M-PESA a Kenyan success story is its implementation. Key ingredients like graft, determination, luck, naivety and a receptive population starved of any meaningful access to bank accounts or financial services created a perfect storm for the launch of the service. A storm, let’s remember, which is yet to hit other countries with the same intensity, many of whom have struggled to adopt M-PESA or related platforms as successfully. So far, anyway.

The very idea for M-PESA is also disputed. Despite the technology being developed in the UK, some believe that it was indeed a Kenyan who had the original idea. This “Is M-Pesa really Kenyan or British?” post on humanipo goes into a little further detail. You could argue that none of this really matters, of course. Another debate.

On top of all that, barely a week goes by when my Twitter stream isn’t hit with a claim that 10%, 25% or even 50% of Kenya’s GDP passes through M-PESA. The number – whatever it is – is astonishing. The one I’ve quoted more recently is “50% by the end of 2013″ – heard at a conference in Amsterdam last autumn. I have no idea whether it’s right or not, but going by the percentage range in the tweets very few other people are either.

If, like me, you think it’s time to debunk some of these myths and inaccuracies and get the inside story of how M-PESA came about, then we’re in luck.

A couple of weeks ago Chris Locke, Managing Director of the GSMA Development Fund, gave me a copy of a book I didn’t know existed. “Money, Real Quick: Kenya’s Disruptive Mobile Money Innovation” is a great read if you’re one of the few people new to M-PESA, or you’re one of the majority who thought you knew it. The book covers everything from the seed of the idea, the importance of the human network of M-PESA agents (often forgotten in the technology-dominated discussion), what mobile money means to Kenya’s finance and banking industry, it’s impact, and what the future may look like. The book also touches on innovation more broadly, and how M-PESA speaks of the new-found appetite for innovation in the country.

I’m not sure if this book did come out in 2012 as Amazon claims, but regardless it’s incredibly useful if you think, after six years, it’s time to meet the real M-PESA. If you do you can find it on Amazon here.

January 22, 2013   10 Comments

Our networked society: In numbers

Until recently, getting your hands on good mobile data was something of a challenge unless you had a couple of thousand dollars to throw at a market research company. Things suddenly got a lot better over the summer with the launch of the GSMA’s Mobile and Development Intelligence website (covered on my blog here). Now, Ericsson have picked up the baton and published one of the most comprehensive mobile/information society reports for some time.

The Ericsson Mobility Report provides up-to-date information on a range of indicators including mobile subscriptions, mobile penetration, breakdowns of adoption by technology, breakdown of traffic (voice vs. data) – with predicted growth for the next five years – and population coverage. There’s also interesting insights on speed, video and apps. To help visualise the data there are well over a dozen images and graphs throughout the report.


Mobile subscriptions by region (click for larger image)


Mobile penetration (click for larger image)


Summary table (click for larger image)

Ericsson have performed in-depth data traffic measurements since the early days of mobile broadband from a large base of live networks covering all regions of the world, and this rich source of information provided much of the data for the new report.

You can download the full Ericsson Mobility Report here (27 pages, PDF, 3Mb). Highlights are available on Slideshare, with a useful set of images and graphs made available on Flickr.

November 26, 2012   75 Comments

Means of Exchange at Pop!Tech

Last month I returned to the US for one of my favourite annual events – Pop!Tech. It’s generally an opportunity to be re-inspired, meet old friends and help out as a Faculty member on the Social Innovation Fellows Program. This year I had the added opportunity of giving the first public talk on my latest project, Means of Exchange.

You can watch the eleven-minute talk here, or on the Pop!Tech website.

For further details, and to receive updates as we roll the project out, check out the Means of Exchange website, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

You can watch more talks and listen to a selection of radio interviews on the kiwanja.net website.

November 5, 2012   20 Comments

Smart mobs, flash mobs. Meet cash mobs.

A couple of months ago I wrote about my new initiative – Means of Exchange – which focuses on how emerging, everyday technologies can be used to democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local communities and promote a return to local resource use. It’s been a busy few months, culminating in the launch of our first project this week. And here it is.

You’ve probably heard of smart mobs, or at least flash mobs. Welcome to the brave new world of cash mobs.

Cash mobbing takes its name from “flash mobbing”, a craze which started way back in 2003 in Manhattan, New York. In a flash mob, a group of people mobilise over social media and arrange to meet in a predetermined place. According to Wikipedia, when they get there they “perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expression”. Flash mobs were themselves inspired by “smart mobs”, a term coined by Howard Rheingold to describe a group that, contrary to the usual connotations of a mob, “behaves intelligently or efficiently because of its exponentially increasing network links”.

Continuing the theme, a “cash mob” takes place when a group of people arrange to meet at a local shop or store. When they get there, instead of dancing, singing or carrying out other “pointless acts”, they spend a predetermined amount of money. Cash mobs are generally organised by people who enjoy the fun, excitement and novelty of a cash mob, or others who are concerned about the plight of local businesses and want to do something to help.

A number of websites have sprung up over recent months encouraging people to cash mob their local stores, and a number of Facebook groups and Twitter feeds have been created to support their efforts. So far, people have either been given a few pointers and then told to go and figure out the social media bit for themselves, or they’ve been asked to propose local venues to local group ‘owners’ to choose from. We think people want to create their own cash mob, not settle for someone else’s, and they want to be able to seamlessly push it out through their existing social media, not fiddle around creating new accounts. So we built Cash Mobbers.

To coincide with the launch of the Cash Mobbers website we’ve organised what we believe to be London’s first cash mob at an independent bookshop in Hackney this Thursday (9th August).

Further details are available, naturally, on the Cash Mobbers website.

If the idea of driving business back to smaller, locally owned shops and stores is something that appeals to you, there’s a few things you can do:

1. Tweet about this post or the Cash Mobbers site to help spread the word
2. Follow @CashMobbers on Twitter
3. Tweet about the London cash mob, and “Like” the event
4. Let any friends in or around London know about it
5. Organise your own cash mob. Find full details and pointers here

My ethos with Means of Exchange remains the same as it has with much of my work over the years. The main objective is to build and gather a suite of engaging tools to help people help themselves, whenever they’re ready. Sometimes that can take a while, but I’m in no hurry. After all, build it, and they will come…

August 6, 2012   28 Comments

From text messaging to economic resilience

Three weeks ago we announced that I was stepping down from day-to-day operations at FrontlineSMS to hand over to a new senior management team. It’s clear from the success of the global launch of version 2 of the software over the past week that FrontlineSMS is in safe hands, and the reworked software, outreach and launch were all handled by the team with little involvement from me. It was great to see all their hard work come together, and I congratulate everyone on a job extremely well done. \o/

Photo: Laura W Hudson

As I mentioned in my recent post, I’ll remain involved with the project and will continue to support innovation and entrepreneurship in the developing (and developed) world, will continue to write about technology and Africa, and will continue with mentoring and speaking. The ICT4D and social innovation fields continue to fascinate and inspire me as much as they did all those years ago when I started out, and I’ll remain involved as long as I continue to add value.

Introducing “Means of Exchange”

So, what else will I be working on? Well, for the past two years I’ve been taking an increasing interest in economic resilience, particularly how technology might help buffer local communities from global economic downturns. Ironically, since I started my research the world has entered a period of growing economic uncertainty. The causes – although fascinating – don’t so much interest me, more the response at local, grassroots level.

As we all know, in times of hardship people tend to become increasingly innovative. As Greeks have found themselves with less and less cash in their pockets, many have turned to bartering. It’s how communities react to economic shocks that I’ll be focussing on, and how tools like bartering, swapping, LETS schemes and local currencies are applied and deployed in response.

We pay too little attention to the reserve power of the people to take care of themselves. We are too solicitous for government intervention, on the theory, first, that the people themselves are helpless, and second, that the government has superior capacity for action. Often times both of these conclusions are wrong

Calvin Coolidge

It’s only when things go wrong that we question the systems which regulate, control and dominate our lives. We enter 2012 at a time of great economic uncertainty. Millions of people around the world have lost jobs, homes, businesses, independence and purpose. Millions more face growing uncertainty and insecurity. Many hard working people have been hard hit. In the greater scheme of things they’re simply collateral damage in the rebalancing of a larger, broken world economic system.

While it’s impossible for most of us to remove ourselves entirely from the world economic system, there is a lot we can do to lessen our dependence on it. Funnily enough it’s something our ancestors managed to do pretty well. It’s called self-sufficiency.

For the majority of people, self-sufficiency conjures up images of grow-your-own vegetables on village allotments, but more meaningful economic self-sufficiency is possible if people are creative in how they earn, trade and share with one another. As money has taken over as our primary means of exchange, other more traditional methods have been lost.

What we’ve been left with is an economic system we have little control over, a loss of community and a drift away from the consumption of locally produced goods and services.

But all is not lost. This can be halted, and by using the very technologies which enable us to take part in a globalised society, it can be reversed. If you’re interested in learning more about methods of economic self-sufficiency, or you’re interested in tools and resources to make it happen, then Means of Exchange is for you.

Firstly, the website will focus on how emerging, everyday technologies can be used to democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local communities and promote a return to local resource use.

Secondly, if they don’t already exist, we’ll build you the tools so you can make it happen wherever you are. Our first flagship “app” will be released within the next few weeks.

To keep up-to-date with new releases and latest news, check us out via:

See you on the other side.

June 18, 2012   41 Comments

Closing mobile’s data divide

Good mobile data is hard to come by. Much is either speculative, out of date or – if based on more recent research – expensive. And what is freely available is often spread far and wide across the Web. If you’re into mobiles for development then today your life is set to become a lot easier with the launch of “Mobile and Development Intelligence” (MDI), a new open data platform from the GSM Association which aims to “educate and unite all who want to harness the power of mobile for good”.

A key objective of MDI is to help increase investment and activity in the mobile for development field, and in turn amplify the social, economic and environmental benefits the technology can bring. That positive impact has already touched a wide range of development sectors from education and health to financial services, government transparency and democracy, and agriculture. With mobile phones now in the hands of the very people the development community have historically tried to help – billions of them, and counting – exciting new opportunities have emerged. According to the GSMA:

The mobile phone’s ubiquity is uniquely well-placed to drive economic and social development in emerging markets. Investments in the mobile and development sectors are rising yet there is limited data on which to base these decisions. MDI is designed to bridge this information gap.

These gaps include:

  • The lack of data for business cases, product strategies and programmes
  • Limited visibility of organisations and communities
  • Limited understanding of the impact of mobiles on development
  • Fragmentation of platforms and limited cross-sector convergence

In line with these challenges, MDI aims to provide:

A freely accessible, online repository of data and analysis
MDI will aggregate, cleanse and categorise data from multiple internal and external sources into a single, centralised data repository. Users will have the ability to manipulate, visualise and export the datasets (below: the ratio of total mobile connections to total population, 2009-2011).

Visibility of organisations, products and services and community
MDI will provide an online directory where users can access information about organisations and their products, services and initiatives. It will provide the “who, what, where and how”.

Clarify the impact of mobile on development
Develop impact pathways for each specific sector to find and map evidence of socio-economic benefit, and host impact metrics from other GSMA departments e.g. the impact of mobile on GDP.

Thought leadership on technology convergence
Working outwards from user needs to design common platforms to deliver them.

Future functionality will include an investor hub, document repository, online community and coverage maps making MDI a one-stop shop for NGOs, international NGOs, government departments and the private sector interested in leveraging the power of mobile technology for development.

You can visit the MDI site here.

Congratulations to the GSMA team, partners ThoughtWorks and PwC, and investor the Omidyar Network.

June 13, 2012   117 Comments

Back at National Geographic

I was no different to many other children my age, taking every opportunity to get my hands on a National Geographic magazine and flicking through each colourful page in wonder and amazement. I’d get most of mine cheap from jumble sales back then – I can afford to buy them full price these days – but that sense of fascination remains.

Thirty years on and I find myself back in Washington DC attending my second National Geographic Explorers Symposium. I’ve packed quite a lot in over those thirty years – school building in Zambia, hospital building in Uganda, a degree in Social Anthropology, carrying out biodiversity surveys in Uganda, running a primate sanctuary in Nigeria, various trips and visits to a host of other countries, most on the African continent and, of course, the development of FrontlineSMS.

It was 2003 that my career took its most significant turn when I started working in mobile, and until very recently FrontlineSMS took up most of my time. It was that work which caught the eye of the panel at the National Geographic Society, culminating in my Award in 2010. I’m back again this year to moderate a panel, help mentor the 2012 Class of Emerging Explorers, and share news of my growing relationship with the Society.

It’s not every day that you find yourself randomly sharing a lift with people behind some of the most famous discoveries of our time. This is a very special place, and it’s always a huge honour to be here. If you’d told me thirty years ago that I’d be walking these corridors today, I’d never have believed you.

June 11, 2012   9 Comments

Innovation: Beyond technology.

Last week we made one of the most important announcements in the near-seven year history of FrontlineSMS. As I hinted in my “Rolling Stones School of Management Innovation” post last December, I only felt able to take the project to a certain level and that it required different people with a different set of skills to move it to the next. Last week, with that internal transition complete, we announced that I’d be stepping aside to concentrate on other things, and FrontlineSMS would move forward in fresh hands.

Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald will now drive the project forward as CEO’s of our US Foundation and UK Community Interest Company respectively. You can read their thoughts on the transition, and what they have planned, in their follow-up post here.

Many wonderful messages of support flooded in in the form of Tweets, direct messages, blog comments, emails and – of course – text message. The transition announcement was amazingly well received and the response overwhelmingly positive. Many people commented that the move was “incredibly brave” and “must have been difficult” but as I mentioned in the announcement, I felt it was neither. As I said then, I’ve always maintained that it’s just as important to be aware of your limitations as your strengths, and stepping aside in these circumstances is the clearest indication I can give that I do.

There haven’t been many transitions like this in the m4d or ICT4D worlds that I know of, and if that’s the case it reinforces our commitment to not only be innovative with technology but innovative organisationally, and to also always act in the best interests of the project rather than ourselves. FrontlineSMS, as with many other ICT4D projects, is bigger than one person. I’m excited to see where FrontlineSMS goes from here, and I’ll follow and support it in my new capacity as Chairman of the Board with the same commitment and enthusiasm as I did from my one bedroom flat in Cambridge, or VW Camper at Stanford.

Alongside the congratulatory messages a few people wished me luck and said they hoped to still see me on the innovation, technology, mobile or African scene. Well, they will. I’m not retiring, just handing over the reins at FrontlineSMS. I’ll continue to write, blog and speak about technology, innovation and social change, and maintain a focus on Africa as I’ve done for the past twenty years.

What’s next

As for what’s next, I’m excited that over the past few months I’ve been increasingly drawn into the wider world of innovation and entrepreneurship beyond my technology roots – speaking the other week at the Ashoka/Ben & Jerry’s ”Join Our Core” event, for example, and next month spending time with BMW executives in Munich.

My writing has also started to gain traction beyond the news sites and journals which dominate our discipline, with a short guest piece in Wired Magazine last month. I’m also planning my first book which will focus on “reluctant innovation“, due out later this year. And I’m doing an increasing amount of mentoring with organisations such as Pop!Tech, National Geographic and the Unreasonable Institute, something that aligns perfectly with my long-standing commitment to “give back”.

Project-wise I have a long list of new ideas I’ll be working on. One is just a few weeks away from being ready, so I’ll save the official announcement for then. But in the spirit of my efforts with FrontlineSMS, the overarching focus of my work will continue to centre around how we best apply modern technology for social benefit, both in the developed and developing world. If anything, it’s the additional focus on the developed world which represents the biggest shift in my thinking.

In an effort to stay innovative and relevant, large companies are often encouraged to reinvent themselves. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to individuals, too. The ICT4D sector has shifted focus considerably since I started out all those years ago. When the time is right, there’s no reason why some of the people in it shouldn’t do the same, either.

Further reading
ClearlySo featured our transition on their blog. You can read their excellent commentary here.

June 5, 2012   52 Comments

“Work. Life. Balance”. An interview with Voice America

Over the past few years I’ve given a fair few interviews, and have been grateful for the continued interest and enthusiasm from others for our work. Most interviews have focused on combinations of my time working in Africa, my technology interests, or the evolution and development of FrontlineSMS. Until now, none had asked me to go way back and talk about my background, family and upbringing, or dig deeply into what drives me and my work.

Last week, Kate Ebner on “Visionary Leader, Extraordinary Life” did just that. You can read the write-up below.

Finding What Lights You Up:  The Unassuming Wisdom of Mobile Innovator and Anthropologist Ken Banks

Ken Banks finished up his hour on our radio show and, moments later, tweeted “thanks for the therapy!” with a cyber smile. During his radio hour, Kate invited Ken to tell his life story at length for the benefit of our listeners. The story began in Banks’ childhood — in Jersey, England, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy, France. To date, it takes place in Africa where Banks is bringing mobile technologies to enable effective communications channels for communities in the developing world through his organization kiwanja.net and his free, open-source software FrontlineSMS.

Why did Kate invite Ken to spend so much of the hour telling his story? “Ken’s story is one of overcoming loss, uncertainty and adversity to find his path. He is an optimist with high standards for himself and the world. He hasn’t always been able to see how the pieces of his story quite fit together. We can relate to those feelings and circumstances. How Ken moves through life — the decisions that he has made and how he makes them — is so instructive and inspiring for all of us.”

Here are just a few of the wise nuggets that Ken Banks imparted during his hour on Visionary Leader, Extraordinary Life:

Everyone should be given a chance to maximize their potential. Inspire people to feel they have something to contribute to the world and help them find ways to make it happen. Read Ken’s blog post, “Enabling the Inspiration Generation.”

Just think about how you can help 4-5 people. You don’t need to save the whole world. If everyone helped just 4-5 people, the world would be a better place.

Anything is possible. Regardless of the cards you are dealt in life, pick yourself up and walk on. You don’t need parents in high places, or lots of money to make a difference in the world.

Do something that feels right. Don’t let others dictate your path. Only you will know what is right for you at any given moment in your life. If you feel good about what you are doing, don’t give up.

Make your own opportunities. If you haven’t found the one thing that immediately switches you on, get out and put yourself in the kinds of environments where you have a better chance of finding it. You won’t find it sitting at home and watching television.

Maximize every opportunity. You are only as good as the last thing you have done. It doesn’t matter that you gave a great talk last year – it’s all about the one you are doing now. If you give everything 100%, it will start to pay off and you will build momentum and people will want to support you and your ideas.

To hear more, listen to Ken’s interview (also available on the kiwanja.net website here).

This interview was in part dedicated to our Mother, who passed away one year ago last month.

May 6, 2012   5 Comments