The cellphone has become more of a tool and less of a toy, especially among the poor and those trying to help them, in emerging markets. It helps deliver, via text message, water, energy, financial services, healthcare and even education.
The WHO estimates that more than 700 million people do not have access to clean drinking water and more than 2.5 billion have no access to toilets. Yet according to the International Telecommunications Union, 96 percent of the world is connected via cellphone — which is why it has become a means of doing good.
Many of the aid services that employ mobile phones are Western-inspired, but designed for people making US$2 a day. For example, graduate students at Stanford University developed software, M-Maji, to map clean water stations in Kibera, Kenya, a dense urban slum in Nairobi. Think of the Gas Buddy app, but instead of searching for the cheapest and closest gas station, M-Maji helps Kibera residents find clean water within walking distance. A text offers three options: find water, sell water or file a complaint.
Shivani Siroya, an advocate and entrepreneur who splits her time between Los Angeles and Mumbai, India, is using mobiles to create credit scores for the poor.
Siroya took inspiration from the free personal finance management site Mint.com to create a tool for customers in southern India without bank accounts or financial histories.
After logging in daily expenses and earnings via text, users get a monthly statement, creating a financial record. The statement becomes the basis for extending credit through microfinance loans and other services.
Siroya sells her service, InSight, to banks, microfinance institutions and nonprofit groups that want to engage the 400 million so-called “unbanked” people in India.
Since starting the enterprise in 2010, she has collected 614,426 financial records and has expanded to South Africa and Kenya. Her company is a hybrid model: a mix of private capital and grants, including US$100,000 each from the Vodafone Americas Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the telecom giant Vodafone and the US Agency for International Development.
The number of such initiatives seems likely to increase.
“The development community is eager to learn more about how to use mobiles effectively,” said Nick Martin, a founder of Tech Change, a social enterprise based in Washington that educates development practitioners via online courses.
Martin said his most popular course had been mobiles for development.
In the last three years, TechChange has taught the course eight times to nearly 400 participants from more than 60 countries.
MHealth, or mobiles used for health services, is the most evolved of the mobile sectors, Martin said. Large-scale campaigns in mHealth have focused primarily on maternal health and vaccination campaigns.
Three companies — Dimagi, ZMQ and Medic Mobile — have turned cellphones into mHealth tools through open-source software that can be used by rural healthworkers.
Dimagi’s director of operations Krishna Swamy recently demonstrated the technology at the organization’s New Delhi office in the basement of a fashionable residential neighborhood.
He pulled out a Java-based Nokia cellphone, long antiquated in developed markets, but still handy in India. A series of avatars resembling healthworkers ask users questions in Hindi about prenatal care.