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.

The charging challenge and the entrepreneur

In “Mobile Telephony: Leveraging Strengths and Opportunities for Socio-Economic Transformation in Nigeria” (a book which I blogged about last year), Christiana Charles-Iyoha sheds some fascinating light on the barriers to mobile ownership among Nigerian market traders. Erratic power supply, and difficulty charging, came top with a staggering 87%.

Users in many African countries – and not just those in rural areas – face similar problems. In Uganda, this “charging challenge” is being met head-on by a growing band of local entrepreneurs and business people.

Rural users are able to charge their phones from a car battery (top image), charged up by a local entrepreneur when power is available, or charged in a nearby town with better supply and transported back. In urban areas, where grid power is generally more reliable, kiosks (bottom image) dotted around local markets provide charging services to passing customers.

The spread of mobile technology in developing countries has opened up income-generating opportunities on a massive scale. But what is most interesting is how local entrepreneurs have taken advantage of this growth using their own skills and ingenuity. According to the Uganda Communications Commission, the telecoms sector there provides direct employment to a little over 6,000 people. Indirect employment – which includes mobile charging entrepreneurs, airtime vendors, accessories sales-people and mobile repair shops – comes to a staggering 350,000.

Classic grassroots, bottom-up business development, and not a hand-out in sight.

(These, and other images of mobiles in use in developing countries, can be found in the Mobile Gallery. For further examples of African ingenuity at work, visit