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The numbers speak for themselves: Today, there are more than five billion mobile phones in developing countries and nearly one mobile phone line per adult in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Such a direct and affordable channel has never before existed, and mobile phones are now hailed as a powerful tool to lift millions out of poverty.

As their numbers have grown, so too have their many uses. Take a company called Sproxil, which has set up an SMS-based system that has so far been used been used by more than two million people to check if they are buying counterfeit medications. Or Safaricom’s M-Pesa service, which has provided more than 15 million users in Kenya with a safe way to send money home and make payments using their mobile phones.

Efforts such as these represent an impressive first step.  However, focusing on the technology betrays a truth that must be understood if we are to get beyond this hype and harness the true potential of mobile. To truly make a difference to the lives of the world’s poor, I believe that we must complement the existing mobile networks with well structured human networks.

What do I mean by a human network? To understand what they are and the impact they can have, our network of more than 850 Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs) in Uganda offers a good example. 

A typical CKW is a local person, often a subsistence farmer, chosen by their community. Equipped with a phone - and trained in how to effectively use it - they spend a portion of each day visiting the fields of other farmers. They are called upon to help find information on crop and animal diseases, provide market prices and give guidance on how to maximize yields. They also collect information from the farmers - such as which crops are growing and expected yields - on behalf of organizations ranging from the World Food Program to Great Lakes Coffee (a local coffee purchaser) that lack an affordable means of collecting such granular, real-time information.  This human network helps farmers increase productivity and earn more for their efforts while providing much-needed information to organizations that work with these farmers.

The central importance of the human network cannot be underestimated.  Trusted local people play several critical roles.  First, they help people discover that information or a service that perhaps was once only accessible through other means is now available in their hands.  Second they teach people how to use those services. And, finally, they are able to help people apply what they have learned to their own problems and lives.

This combination of roles can only be effectively delivered by local people on the ground – people who bridge the “last kilometer” gap, ensure relevance and overcome barriers of illiteracy and multiple languages to effectively reach poor people.

Making Human Networks Hum

The good news is that there are many different types of human networks throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Here at Grameen Foundation, we also work closely with the Ghana Health Service and its network of “Community Health Workers” to be more effective and efficient in delivery of health services.  We are exploring creative ways to extend the network of “cash-in and cash-out” points used by a mobile money operator in Uganda to reach deeper into the socio-economic pyramid.  But, building and delivering successful services and businesses through these networks is a bigger challenge that requires lots of pieces to come together.

To begin, the challenges and problems faced in the day-to-day lives of real people in the places where they live and work must be deeply understood.  Successful products and services cannot be developed sitting in Seattle or London; instead, they must be designed, tested, iterated and improved in the field with the human network and their intended audience.  The CKW model was built from the ground up in Uganda and continues to be locally driven, based on the real needs and experiences of real people.

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.

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David Edelstein co-leads Grameen Foundation’s global programs and directs the organization’s technology-focused efforts. 

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