In numbers: A decade of mobile

January 2013 will be my ten year anniversary in “mobiles for development”. To say a lot has changed is something of an understatement. Back in those early pre-m4d-community days I would often get asked “Do they have mobile phone networks in Africa?”, or “How do people in Africa afford phones?”, or “Why are you wasting your time looking at the use of mobile phones in development?”.

Silly questions today, but not so silly back then, perhaps. Mobile phone ownership and penetration were largely in their infancy, and I only began looking at the conservation and development potential of this ’emerging’ technology thanks to the incredible vision of a team at Fauna & Flora International in Cambridge, UK. A year after we started work we’d not only developed a groundbreaking project – wildlive! – but pulled together what was likely the first comprehensive report on the development potential of mobile phones. With so little actual data to go on, most of our research was based on anecdotal evidence. Ironically, solid data – even ten years on – is still a little tricky to come by.

(The full report is available in the kiwanja Mobile Database here).

Over the past nine years the conversation – and the technology – have moved on considerably, and today few people would argue that mobiles have had a transformative effect in the developing world. Quite where things are headed is a little unclear, but infographics such as this two-pager from the World Bank can help remind us how far we’ve come, and how exciting this sector is to work in.

Click for a larger (readable) version of page one here and page two here.

I would say “Here’s to the next ten years”, but with the pace of change we’ve seen so far we’re probably best not looking that far ahead.

Good idea, bad idea or no idea?

For every one of our failures we had spreadsheets that looked awesome

Scott Cook. Founder and Chairman, Intuit

One of the biggest privileges of working in the technology sector for so long are the number of young entrepreneurs and innovators who approach me for thoughts on their big idea. As I’ve written before, whenever I can add value to someone else’s work I’m more than happy to. Giving back is important.

There’s something of an assumed wisdom in the social entrepreneurship and innovation sectors that “ideas are cheap” and that what it’s really all about is execution. While that’s true to an extent (I’ve only put a few of my ideas over the years into practice) good ideas certainly aren’t cheap. It’s just that sometimes – most of the time, in fact – they’re frustratingly hard to spot. Just to complicate things further, ideas often evolve over time, so could well start off in the lower half of the score card but then rise to dizzying heights later.

We’ll never know what would have happened to the tens of thousands of product ideas Steve jobs famously turned down, but the ones he did pursue were clearly good calls (with the exception of Apple TV, perhaps). For the Apple CEO, turning down a great idea was a price worth paying to maintain his relentless focus on focus.

But focusing on ideas and execution doesn’t give us the whole picture. One of the most effective tools in an innovator’s toolbox is passion and, although it won’t turn a mediocre idea into a great one, being passionate about it will certainly impact positively on their ability to deliver.

Passion is easy to spot, but what about the potential of the idea being communicated? In a recent Co.Design article, Scott Anthony provided a few helpful tips. Before getting too far down the road, he says, ask yourself these five questions:

1. Is it targeting an important problem that customers can’t address because existing solutions are expensive or inconvenient?

2. Does it solve the problem in a simpler, more convenient, or more affordable way?

3. Is there a plausible hypothesis about an economically attractive, scalable business model? Don’t believe financial forecasts, but ensure that there’s at least a sensible story

4. Does the team have the right stuff to course-correct according to in-market learning? Avoid dogmatic teams that will keep trying to prove they are right in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary

5. Can early profitability be a choice? The sooner there is a line of sight to profits, the better. You might make a strategic decision to be unprofitable by investing in marketing, sales capability, and so on, but at least you know that the core part of the model works

One of the key lessons FrontlineSMS taught me was the importance of getting your idea out there as quickly as possible and letting your users shape it. Thanks to the Internet, product launches – in the technology sector at least – are today only a mouse click away. Products can be accessed, used, hacked and abused in no time – or simply not used at all – giving you the quickest and clearest indication possible of its potential. Twitter was, in effect, shaped this way.

In terms of the tools, networks and opportunities available today, it’s never been easier to be an innovator or social entrepreneur. The difficult part has remained the same for generations of innovators gone by – that tricky combination of nailing a great idea, convincing others of its value, and then delivering on it.

Further reading
Three Ways To Predict What Consumers Want Before They Know It

The Cobra’s Heart

“I lived in Africa for several years. I first went there in 1957. Then, over the next forty years, I returned whenever the opportunity arose. I travelled extensively, avoiding official routes, palaces, important personages, and high-level politics. Instead, I opted to hitch rides on passing trucks, wander with nomads through the desert, be the guest of peasants of the tropical savannah. Their life is endless toil, a torment they endure with astonishing patience and good humour.

This is therefore not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there – about encounters with them, and time spent together. The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’.

In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”

Ryszard Kapuscinski, “The Cobra’s Heart”, 1998