It seems like every day we hear more about the endless development possibilities offered by mobile technology beyond the basics of connectivity and communication. “The Economist” recently offered a good round-up of some of the most innovative and clever new services being offered. Rather than complicated applications for expensive smartphones, these initiatives focus on offering solutions for everyday problems in poorer countries where cheap mobile phones are becoming increasingly popular.As the article points out, even in poorer countries about two thirds of the population usually have access to a mobile phone. This has sparked a rise in mobile services for cheaper phones that go beyond simple voice calling and texting, similar to the boom in mobile application development with the growing popularity of smartphones in wealthier countries. Though the article is quick to point out that the number of people actually using these services is still relatively small: “even among young people in South-East Asia (a tech-friendly lot) only 8% had used more than “voice-services” according to a poll by LIRNEasia [a think tank in Sri Lanka].”
Still, many of these services are growing their user base and given the convenience—and sometimes lifesaving—services they provide, it’s easy to see why. Here are a few of the mobile services that caught our eye: --mPedigree: Currently offered in Ghana and Nigeria, where the fake-drug trade is a concern, this service allows users to text a serial number on the packaging of their medicine and receive a response in seconds indicating whether or not it’s genuine and safe. Not only does the service have the potential to save lives, it’s also free for users; pharmaceutical companies foot the bill in the interest of stopping counterfeiters. --Dialog Tradenet: Among the many mobile trading platforms being offered, Dialog allows farmers in Sri Lanka to check prices and text in offers. Farmer’s Friend is a similar service being offered in Uganda. Though many of the earliest trading platforms focused on agriculture, newer services are beginning to branch out, some offering job listings or selling tickets to sporting and cultural events over the phone. --M-PESA: Founded in Kenya in 2007, this service allows users to pay for bills or receive their salaries through a mobile phone. In a region—Sub-Saharan Africa—where it’s more common to have a cell phone than a bank account, M-PESA currently has 13 million users. Similar services are already being offered in upwards of 40 countries.
Of course, this kind of mobile service development faces various challenges, a few of which the article highlights—bad regulation, bureaucracy, overreliance on donor money, no path towards growth. But, under the right circumstances, it’s the kind of mobile development that could eventually change lives in poorer countries.