Aid groups using cellphones to reach the world's poor

Former employees from some of America's biggest tech companies are creating mobile phone and Internet applications to help some of Africa's poorest populations.
By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 12:36 PM

SEATTLE - For the world's poorest, cellphone technology carries opportunity, aid groups say, as text messages and other mobile applications have created a new platform to reach the most remote farms and crowded urban slums of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The Grameen Foundation, a Washington-based group known for helping women with the smallest of business loans, has two dozen people in a technology lab here developing mobile Internet applications to help spread its microfinance model. It's warning farmers in Uganda about banana crop rot through text messages and collecting data on spreadsheet applications on smartphones.

And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has dedicated $12 million to help village farmers in Tanzania, Cameroon and Rwanda save money through electronic mobile phone deposits. It has launched a $10 million contest in Haiti to fund the best mobile banking ideas to channel earthquake relief to people who would otherwise stand in long lines at overwhelmed bank branches to collect cash. (Melinda Gates is on The Washington Post Co. board of directors.)

In all, 5 billion cellphones are in use globally and the most aggressive adoption is coming from low-income and poor communities, where the low cost of phones and the availability of cell networks even in remote areas has fueled the rapid growth. The innovations in development programs are relatively new, and it's too early to predict their success. Political instability and dictatorships make it hard to work with telecom service providers, and some central banks are reluctant to cooperate with companies that could take away their control over their citizens' finances.

Even so, cellphones have broken through bureaucracies and are reaching many who traditionally have been isolated from help. A basic phone that sends text messages can cost $20. A family or village can share one phone, with each person switching out cheap SIM memory cards for access. Kenya and Uganda have mobile broadband networks rivaling those in the United States and Europe that support the iPhone and BlackBerry.

"Mobile penetration is at almost every single level of geography and income, and given that situation, we are asking how that technology can be used to increase social and economic benefits," said Chris Locke, managing director of development programs for GSM World, a global wireless trade group.

Cellphones are being adopted faster than even the most basic services such as routine medical care and schools. GSM World predicts there will be 1.7 billion cellphone users by 2012 without a bank account. The nonprofit Consultative Group to Assist the Poor estimates 150 million people receive regular social welfare payments but fewer than 25 percent of them have a bank account in which to deposit those funds, save and build assets. Much of that is because bank branches aren't available in rural areas and transaction costs are high.

As such, the Gates Foundation is trying to replicate a popular electronic banking program in Kenya in 19 other nations including Cameroon and Tanzania. Through M-PESA, a joint venture launched by a British development fund and Vodafone, a Kenyan farmer can deposit a few dollars cash with a local shop owner who converts the cash into electronic currency through a mobile text message sent to a city bank. A local telecom provider acts as the armored money vehicle, circulating the funds electronically, and a bank manages the deposits so that even the poorest can save money - a key to breaking out of poverty, aid workers say.

"Savings is an option everyone should have but is not available to the poorest because of the transaction costs and because there is simply no business case for a bank to set up a branch where the poorest live," said Ignacio Mas, deputy director of financial services for the Gates Foundation. "That's where mobile technology comes in. It allows for even $5 to be converted into electronic value without the high costs like never before."

A bank branch transaction costs $2.50 in the Philippines but if done on a mobile phone can be reduced to 50 cents or lower, according to CGAP. The cost to set up a village shop as a bank agent is relatively low, the group said, and studies in Africa show that mobile banking agents at village shops are generating more cellphone banking transactions than Western Union on the continent.

Mobile phones have also spurred new programs in health, agricultural and educational development.

In the past two months, Grameen has registered 500 expectant parents in the Kassena-Nankana area of Ghana, near the border with Burkina Faso, to receive free, regular phone calls and text messages guiding them through pregnancy. At week seven in the pregnancy, a parent receives a text reminder to take a malaria vaccination. At week 37, the parent is told that contrary to myth, eating fruit such as mango and proteins such as eggs is nutritious and won't harm the fetus.

Grameen's founder, Muhammad Yunus, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for micro-lending aimed at women in Bangladesh and other impoverished nations.

A former Microsoft executive set up Grameen's technology lab in Seattle three years ago and attracted two dozen high-tech veterans to bring their work skills to come up with Web and mobile phone solutions for the developing world.

In a partnership with Google and Uganda's government-run wireless service provider, Grameen last year launched a smartphone application that allows a community worker on the ground to visit local farmers and deliver information on crop disease and weather. That worker - an entrepreneur funded by Grameen - also collects data on farming trends and sends it through a smartphone to Uganda's agricultural regulatory agency.

"Tech is an enabler, not the end goal," said David Edelstein, vice president of technology programs for Grameen. "It's about putting information into people's hands and empowering them."

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