The Power of Mobile Technology
Telecommunications towers on the top of the hill, Langkawi, Malaysia

Last week we launched a fundraising campaign for Endaga, the first company to be listed on our crowdfunding investor platform.  To that end, I have been closely monitoring news and commentary on the telecom industry.  One article that quickly caught my eye comes from Alex Clark in The Guardian, in which the author bemoans the cultural impact that cellphones are having on our lives.

She lists a variety of ways of how phones have impacted our lives writing:

“…there are times when we are also enslaved by innovation; where what seems to connect us can in fact separate us – from one another and from our own lived experience, a thought that struck me on New Year’s Eve, at a few minutes to 12, when everyone in my sitting room was – albeit briefly, for they are well-mannered – engaged in some or other screen-based mission.”

To be fair, many of us – myself included – would agree with this observation. Too often a dinner is interrupted with an “urgent” call or emails from work. Enjoying a concert is all the more difficult while trying to check in, tweet, Instagram, and Facebook that you’re at said concert

But she writes,

“If parental concern and sexual appetite – keeping tabs on your kids’ whereabouts on the one hand and forming and maintaining relationships on the other – have been two of the principal drivers of the mobile phone revolution, the field has long since broadened.”

It’s possible that those in my age group, with vague memories of life without cell phones, are neither old enough to appreciate the life before nor young enough to know any other way. However, in the past few weeks I have learned much about mobile technology, particularly its applications in the frontier marketplace.

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Cell phones are powerful tools, even those old Nokia ‘feature phones’ that run on 2G technology.When connected to a network, anyone can speak to someone, anywhere. When living in a mega-city like London it’s easy to forget that there are some very remote places in this world – such as the Indonesian province of Papua where Endaga is building rural cellular networks to connect these communities with the world and the global economy. They allow community members to connect to vendors, make sales, and be more efficient when bringing their goods into a nearby city or town.

In Kenya and Zimbabwe, a company called Totohealth is providing vital maternal and infant care information via SMS to underserved communities where access to a medical professional is nonexistent. These SMS messages don’t just go to the mother, but also to fathers – and as Totohealth’s founders say – is breaking cultural norms by empowering dads to look after the health of their young children.

In Uganda, Time Magazine reported that UNICEF and the World Health Organization have created an SMS-based service which connects rural clinics in order to prevent drug shortages and to more quickly report disease outbreaks to the Ministry of Health.

‘Mobile money’, or mobile micro-payments, were pioneered in East Africa and are now commonly used as a banking and payment solution for many of the world’s poor.

As The Brookings Institution notes, cellular phones disseminate important information before and after natural disasters occur.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “(Information and Communications Technology) infrastructure is an increasingly vital determinant of a country’s overall investment.”

Vodafone has determined a correlation between mobile phone penetration rates and GDP growth, whereby a one percent increase in the former results in a corresponding increase of 0.5-0.6% in the latter.

Cellular phone usage is rapidly growing in nearly every market. According to the World Bank, mobile subscriptions are expected to approach one billion by the end of this year in Africa alone, with over three-quarters of the world having access to a cellular phone. However, this still leaves at least one billion people unconnected.

Cellular phones empower us. They give us easy access to others, and to information as well. Ms. Clark’s complaints about the frivolous luxury of cellphone apps are surely a plague, and one that will undoubtedly spread to the frontier markets amidst increasing deployment of 3G/4G technology, and rapidly decreasing prices for smartphones.  But these again are frivolities based upon individual choice of how we spend our time.

This week, I will post profiles of Endaga and Totohealth as examples of companies doing important work to connect people to the cell network and with important, lifesaving information.

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