And the winner is…

Few would dispute that we’re living in an age of tremendous innovation. It’s hard to believe that the PC has only been around for 20-odd years, and the mobile phone half-of-that. The personal computer may have blazed the original consumer IT trail, but what is happening today with the mobile phone is potentially hugely more significant. Let me explain.

Successful companies understand their customers better than unsuccessful ones, at least that’s what we’re led to believe. Back in the early days of the personal computer, customers were medium- to higher-wage earners, or at the top end the early adopters. It was the same with the mobile phone, considered toys for executives in the early days and only more recently essential devices for the masses. What’s different today is, unlike the PC which stalled price-wise at the lower-end of the developed western markets, mobile manufacturers have very quickly begun looking at the very bottom of the pyramid, the emerging markets, the billions living in poverty in the developing world. The rationale behind this is two-fold, at the very least. Firstly, the developed world (if we can call it that) has reached saturation point in terms of mobile ownership, so it is natural to look towards new markets. Secondly, mobile phones are incredibly, and perhaps uniquely, empowering socially and economically, so people don’t tend to see the move into emerging markets as an exploitative one.

For me, most significant is the interest that mobile manufacturers (and operators, come to that) are taking in development issues – poverty, gender, health, literacy, infrastructure, economic empowerment and so on. Just take the MOTOPOWER charging kiosk (pictured, courtesy of the Mobile Gallery), rolled out in Uganda earlier this year. Not only does it solve a major charging problem for mobile users (it runs on solar power, by the way), but it creates opportunity for micro-enterprise. Many women now run these kiosks.

This is just one example of how manufacturers and operators have quickly understood that poverty – in all its forms – are barriers to ownership, and as a result they’re making significant efforts to understand it. This, I believe, is a potential revolution in how big technology business views the developing world. Think, only recently have there been wide scale (global) attempts to build affordable laptops for the worlds poor – OLPC, for example – but it’s taken decades to get there. Mobile manufacturers are already on the ball, in less than ten.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but there may well end up being more than one winner. And the world’s poor may just be among them.

It’s capacity building, stupid..!

Most of us know the story about teaching a man to fish. It goes something like this. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and he can feed himself and his family forever, or at least a lot longer than one day. I have a similar story, but with a slightly different ending.

Benson in Zambia needs to dig a hole. The way most international aid works today, we’d fly a team over and dig the hole for him. We’d bring over the spades, use consultants to decide the hole’s parameters, and then return home with the spades. The hole might be the wrong shape, or the wrong depth, and in the wrong place, but it’s a hole, right? You may ask why we’re digging it. Benson knows where his hole needs to be, the optimum depth and shape. Why aren’t we giving him the spade, and letting him to do the rest? And, hey, with a spade he can then go and maybe dig holes for other people, and maybe make a little money along the way.

Okay, this may be a simplistic version of capacity building, but it’s so obviously the way we should be going it’s quite amazing that it’s still not standard – or even best – practice. Many ICT programs simply replicate these old models. The “West” holds the intellectual property over the systems, they’re developed in our capital cities, they give us jobs, they’re often big and grand and expensive, and we then let them loose in the developing world. Hey, some even work! But I still wonder why we don’t let developing nations develop their own solutions. As with Benson and his spade, all they need are the tools and a little help, and they’re well capable of doing the work themselves. They understand their predicament more than many of us could ever do.

While I was in Bangalore last December for the W3C Workshop, I had the pleasure to hear first-hand about an amazing project being run by Nathan Eagle, an MIT Research Scientist based at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. The EPROM project (IT experts will get the irony!), or Entrepreneurial Programming and Research On Mobiles, aims to foster mobile phone-related research and entrepreneurship at Kenya’s leading university. Students are taught how to program mobile phones, and develop applications, for use within the university, within their communities, and nationally. Quite simply it’s a brilliant idea, and an example of capacity building at its finest.

If you dig around it’s still possible to find little gems like this, but it’s a shame we have to look so hard. Initiatives such as EPROM and Kiva (see the blog entry below) are setting the new standard. They’re breaking the mould for how we go about “helping” the developing world. As many of us may already know, it’s not really help they need. It’s the tools. There are some very bright people over in Africa too, you know.