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At the largest refugee camp in the world, 19-square-mile Dadaab in northeastern Kenya, the intake center was abuzz with long lines of exhausted, drawn-faced, barefoot people waiting for food. Some were barely clothed after trudging for days or weeks from famine-ravaged Somalia while trying to avoid attacks along the way by lions, hyenas and armed bandits.
Visiting the camp last year, tech evangelist Erin Mote took in the scene—the babies triaged for malnutrition, the throng of humanity in what essentially is a city of a half million people and growing daily. “One of the things that was so striking to me,” Mote says, “was how many of these refugees had a cellphone.”
In fact, some 60 percent of the refugees coming into Dadaab have cellphones, says Mote, whose work has involved bringing technology and information access to some of the world’s most remote places as the former chief of party for the U.S. Agency for International Development Global Broadband and Innovations Alliance, and as a principal of Washington, D.C.-based Verban Group.
In a scene that “could be straight from downtown Nairobi,” a Guardian reporter separately described two girls in the refugee camp typing on a mobile phone to interact with friends on Facebook. Similarly, in one of the world’s biggest slums, Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, one of the most prolific micro-businesses involves providing mobile phone charge-up services and the sale of minutes for prepaid cellphones to the denizens who live without electricity or indoor plumbing in rusted tin-roofed shacks.
Mote travels widely and sees firsthand how simple prepaid mobile phones are changing lives, transforming commerce and creating economic opportunity. It’s happening even in far-flung places such as a Congo village where one cellphone served as a kind of virtual village bank. “It’s incredible to me,” Mote says, “to be in rural Congo and see folks with cellphones.”
Indeed, far more people around the world have mobile phones than toilets. On a planet of 7 billion people, there are about 3 billion toilets compared to 6 billion active cellular phones, and counting. “That’s ENORMOUS!” Mote says. “I don’t know another widget, if you will, that reaches close to 80-some percent of the world’s population.”
The explosion in cellphone use is spurring massive changes, challenging long-held assumptions that had written off billions of very poor people as potential customers. This demand for cellphones shows that the impoverished can be a significant market for entrepreneurs with the right low-cost products. Cellphones also provide a mechanism, even for poor people, to purchase goods and services, to save and invest money, and to aspire to do and have more—even if their governments, currencies and financial and educational institutions are unstable.
Both smartphones and simple cellphones that aren’t Internet-enabled are changing consumer behavior, the way markets run and the way people communicate with governments. Example: About a third of Kenya’s gross domestic product passes through mobile money, which allows customers without bank accounts to use their phones to save their money virtually and spend it via mobile phone. “That’s the huge reordering of the way financial markets work,” Mote says, “and how people transact.” And while people in the First World are obsessed with the latest smartphone technology, it’s the simplest technology—prepaid cellphones—that could be having the biggest impact worldwide.
“I’ve seen a guy who’s 86 in Haiti have his first bank account through mobile money,” Mote says. “For the first time, he’s able to save money and to not have to hoard cash,” thanks to having “a cellphone in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.”
Last March, Mote told people attending the Chopra Foundation’s Sages and Scientists Symposium in Carlsbad, Calif., that the cellphone revolution is even upending Andrew Maslow’s famous pyramid—the Hierarchy of Needs—which assumes the very poor want to satisfy physical needs (including toilet matters) before worrying about the next rungs up on the pyramid: safety and, farther up, friendship and belonging, and still farther up, respect of others.
All of this fascinates Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, who often faces a tough sell getting poor people to buy a $35 toilet and forgo all the inconvenience, unpleasantness and health issues associated with not having one, while they scramble to pay about the same for a simple cellphone. In fact, Sim has made a study of the marketing of mobile phones in hopes of improving his pitch.
Entrepreneur and TED Fellow Femi Akinde has also taken notice. “I would say cellphones have transformed Africa,” says the Nigerian-born Akinde. His Seattle-based technology company SlimTrader has been called the first platform in Africa that lets consumers shop for goods and services via text messaging. It lets users buy such goods as fertilizer, bus tickets and ferry tickets, saving them money and time they’d otherwise spend making purchases in person. As a kid growing up in Nigeria, his family’s occasional spontaneous long Sunday drives to visit relatives who couldn’t afford a landline telephone could be hit-or-miss. At times, they discovered no one home, a deflating experience that Akinde says “leaves an indelible mark.” Cellphones ended that.
A bad daylong experience trying to buy an airplane ticket on a 2009 visit to Lagos, Nigeria, left Akinde frustrated—and prompted the idea that would become his startup SlimTrader. Akinde by this time had gone to graduate school at the University of Chicago and had worked for companies such as Microsoft and AT&T Wireless, so he knew the telecom field and the convenience of buying online. Visiting the bustling city of Lagos for just a couple days, he needed a ticket to Ghana but had no Internet access. The web is hard to access in the developing world; broadband is expensive, so relatively few people have it. His cellphone had at least 2.5Gs, but it wasn’t possible to buy a ticket by phone. What to do?
He physically went to find a city ticketing office. No luck. He ended up making a reservation through another party. Then he walked into a bank to get money to pay for the ticket. Then he had to go back to get the plane ticket, which required waiting in line to pay. “It was just something that could definitely be done in less than five minutes,” Akinde says, “instead of a day of driving around.”
The experience left him wondering: Why aren’t more businesses in Africa making their goods and services accessible by mobile phone? “It wasn’t hard to think that. There was no anger,” he says. “It was just: Why?”
Finding the answers led to starting SlimTrader, which makes it possible for Nigerians to send a text message to his company to ask, for instance, the price of a brand of fertilizer or inquire about a bus ticket. His company replies with a list of vendors and prices for comparison-shopping, which is far easier than the consumer trudging from vendor to vendor in person. If interested, the customer can make a purchase by sending a text message to the chosen vendor and pay by cellphone. Akinde hopes to branch into making pharmaceuticals available by phone to combat the problem of fake and adulterated drugs sold in sub-Saharan Africa where it’s believed that 70 percent of them aren’t genuine, according to the well-researched book Quality Assessment of Solid Pharmaceuticals and Intravenous Fluid Manufacturing in Sub-Saharan Africa. His family knows the problem firsthand; Akinde’s sister has to go on daylong searches to find the right affordable medication for her son’s sickle cell anemia. Getting a bad drug, Akinde says, “is life-threatening to my nephew.”
“Any African with any phone,” Akinde says, “should be able to gain access to goods and services and be able to make a purchase.”
Cellphones already make the difference between life and death, as when victims of raids in the Congo send warnings to neighboring villages of approaching marauding murderers like the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (made famous by Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 YouTube video that went viral). By alerting people who live four or five villages away, people can flee and thwart bad guys. “There was nothing to destroy. There were no women to rape. That’s enormously powerful,” Mote says. While people as early as the 13th century used a fire beacon—a tower loaded with hay to burn to warn of raids—today’s beacon is high-tech. “Now it becomes a cellphone in the Congo. That’s completely transformative.”
Sarah Emerson sees the mobile phone saving lives in Tanzania, a country twice as big as California but with just one doctor for every 50,000 people. She is a contractor for a Centers for Disease Control Foundation program that lets on-the-ground health workers who may or may not be literate use the mobile phone as a disease surveillance tool, calling in information on local cases of malaria, measles and other diseases so a central office can keep alert to potential outbreaks. Example: A colleague noticed a high concentration of delivery-related deaths of pregnant women at a particular clinic. He saw this information in real time as it was being reported by the mobile health tool. Launching an inquiry, he came to learn that the women were traveling a long way from two distant regions and often died on the way to the clinic. That’s because no ambulance was stationed close to their homes. The colleague swung into action: He shifted around ambulances from less remote areas to start providing services to these two distant regions, helping prevent more deaths.
“I’ve seen cellphones revolutionize the way people live,” says Emerson, country manager of the mHealth Tanzania Partnership, CDC Foundation. Seeing how cellphone-based money transfer services are changing the way people transact, and how doctors and nurses use mobile phones to report drug-stock levels and disease reports, “I would say a revolution by way of the mobile phone is under way in Tanzania.”
So, what does the mobile future hold? Ray Ozzie, the former Microsoft chief software architect now working on his startup called Cocomo, foresees an explosion in smartphones after spending time in China and India. He’s excited by the idea that people are getting inexpensive smartphones who’ve never had a personal computer. They never had access to the Internet, but now they can get it via phone.
Coincidentally, Cisco predicts the Internet will grow four times its current size in four years, thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones, tablets and other devices. By 2016, Cisco anticipates almost 2.5 network connections for every person on earth. Most sub-Saharan Africans will have a smartphone in five years, TechCrunch.com predicts, and China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest market for smartphones or will soon. Many people are closely watching Africa because that’s where the really big growth is: Six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa from 2000 to 2010, according to The Economist’s analysis, and seven African countries are expected to make the top 10 in the next five years.
“We’re on the cusp of having, within a few years, a billion smartphones out there,” Ozzie said in March at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle. “This is going to change lives. I’m extremely excited by that.”
With such tremendous need, particularly among the poor in developing countries, it remains unclear whether local entrepreneurs in the Third World or the First World will satisfy the demands of a new century. “But,” Ozzie added, “there are so many opportunities to make a difference.”