This understanding of day-to-day lives must also be used to choose appropriate technology. While more sophisticated devices are increasingly available and affordable in Sub-Saharan Africa, data costs remain high and phones with 12 keys (remember your first phone?) will continue to be used for years to come. Further, as we have found with our Mobile Midwife service that offers advice to expectant mothers, in many cases the most effective form of communication may be through recorded voice instead of text or web. CKWs use smartphones, but we made this decision only after extensive field testing and compelling evidence that the business case was stronger with increased functionality.
However, deeply understanding problems and needs does not guarantee success, particularly in the long term. To create a sustainable service, the enterprise must be treated as a business from the outset. For example, our CKW model relies, in part, on a few large, paying customers for data collection to offset the costs of our workers in the field. Other efforts have found creative ways to pay their way. Datadyne, for example, has a successful “freemium” model for its mobile surveys and Sproxil relies on large pharmaceutical companies to cover costs of its fake drug identification service.
This is not to say that philanthropic dollars do not play a critical role. They are best used to address “market gaps” or “market failures”, situations in which the business risk is high, but so is the potential for transformational social benefit. In most cases, long-term sustainable solutions are best owned by the private sector or governments. Engaging with them early on and working with their existing human networks goes a long way to ensuring success.
Layer on Layer
But even if an organization follows these steps, it cannot rest on its laurels. Even the most successful models require constant innovation. Once a mobile-enabled human network with a sustainable business model is established, there are often ample opportunities for creative expansion - either providing other types of related services or moving into new domains entirely.
Finally, the business must continually use real-time data to respond to market changes, understand user behavior and preferences and adjust its model. Such data is also critical to understand social performance and modify strategy in a real-time way to achieve better social outcomes. With mobiles as part of the solution, collecting this data is straightforward.
This approach, developed over the past ten years, is beginning to prove out the potential of mobile phones. Over the coming years, community health workers, agricultural extension agents, financial services agents and the growing number of cash-in and cash-out points for mobile money will increasingly be empowered by mobiles. In turn, they will provide services to the hundreds of millions of people across Sub-Saharan Africa who have access to a mobile phone, but are just beginning to realize the benefits of mobiles.
A new generation of entrepreneurs and incubators across Africa will fuel this development, together with international companies and organizations and local businesses. The hard work of building mobile networks has largely been completed, even in the most rural areas. We now have the opportunity to maximize their social value – layering human networks on top of the mobile ones to directly benefit people from the largest cities to the most rural villages across Sub-Saharan Africa.
David Edelstein co-leads Grameen Foundation’s global programs and directs the organization’s technology-focused efforts.