The Promise of Mobile Banking

mpesa_logoAround two billion people on the planet are “unbanked” — which is to say they have no access to financial services. Their transactions are all in cash. Any savings need to be hidden in their home. They are vulnerable to crime. They can’t earn interest. They can’t transfer money to others. They don’t qualify for loans.

Fortunately, new technologies are offering important opportunities, particularly through cell phones.

The best-known and most celebrated online financial service utilizing cell phones is M-Pesa, launched in Kenya in 2007. M-Pesa allows users to deposit cash into their M-Pesa accounts (usually via the ubiquitous cell phone agents that sell users minutes all across Kenya), store money, and transfer money to others. They can also pay bills, purchase air time, and in some cases buy products.

M-Pesa was launched when Safaricom, a leading mobile operator in Kenya, saw that new cell phone users were “banking” minutes on their phones. Apparently, if someone had some money, it was safer to buy and store minutes than to hold cash. When Safaricom allowed users to share minutes, they saw people start to make payments to one another in this new “currency”. So Safaricom decided to allow users to not only store and share minutes, but also money. M-Pesa was born.

The service spread quickly in Kenya, and currently includes over 25 million active users (which is about the entire adult population of the country). A study of M-Pesa by MIT and Georgetown researchers concluded that between 2008 and 2014, M-Pesa was responsible for lifting 200,000 families out of poverty (about 2% of total households).

M-Pesa has also been launched in Tanzania, South Africa, Afghanistan, India, and several Eastern European countries — to mixed success.

M-Pesa also provides a financial platform for other services. For example, the Kenyan company M-Kopa sells personal solar systems for households that are lacking electricity. Payments for the system are made daily for a year through M-Pesa. If a payment is missed, the system is disabled until payments resume.

Online banking is convenient for those of us in developed countries. In developing countries, it is transformative.

Exploring the Frontiers of Broadband

IMG_2277I’ve been fortunate to spend much of the last six months traveling in developing countries, learning about the progress and consequences of the extension of broadband into resource-poor environments.

I’ll be writing more on this topic in coming months, but here are a few pictures of communities I’ve visited where I’ve enjoyed conversations with locals.

Rural Nicaragua has increasing cellular coverage — if people can afford it. Notice that these homes have electricity, but no antennas signaling television. People at this economic level may own a feature phone but not a smartphone. This image is taken outside of Tipitapa.

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In rural Malawi, I would see some signs of the use of solar power, including mobile panels that villagers could move around to optimize the sun. This image is from Mulanje District, a poor region in the south of the country.

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In Soweto, South Africa, most homes have no electricity, but some connect (generally illegally) to power poles on the periphery of the settlement. This allows residents to occasionally have lights and charge cell phones.

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Most of the planet at this point is connected by feature phone, and about half the planet by smartphone — a percentage that will grow greatly in the next few years.

The Outsize Role of Tech Incubators

iHubThe outward signs of increased connectivity in developing countries are hard to miss. Even in cities with relatively recent connectivity, it is common to see swarms of smartphone-toting 19-year-olds taking selfies.

Often, however, there is more consequential activity taking place behind the scenes.

One such activity is the emergence of tech incubators in larger cities. Modeled after co-working spaces in the US or Europe, the new tech hubs, such as Nairobi Garage in Kenya or BongoHive in Zambia, provide the space and tools that entrepreneurs require. They also provide an immediate and invaluable source of community to help with collaboration, training, and promoting innovation.

I’m currently working from Phandeeyar, a tech incubator in downtown Yangon. I feel right at home. There are tables of young techies working on startups. The conference rooms include whiteboards covered with unintelligible flowcharts. The kitchen area boasts unlimited coffee. The ping pong table appears to get a lot of use.

Best of all, membership is $25 / week — about 10% what I would pay in the US.

Coworker.com lists co-working spaces in 125 countries – and growing! Co-working spaces represent a mostly hidden, but very consequential, form of tech infrastructure in developing countries.

Coca-Cola to Provide Wifi Hotspots

ekocenterCoca-Cola is planning to build wifi hotspots across sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In partnership with Intelsat, Coca-Cola is launching its “Ekocenter” program to promote local development and community. Each Ekocenter will provide local wifi, as well as power and clean water.

The program initially is targeting sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Future expansion will include Latin America.

When possible, Ekocenters will be run by women, consistent with Coca-Cola’s 5×20 goal of empowering 5 million women by 2020.

Government Programs for Expanding Internet

mex2While the global reach of the internet is increasing through wireless, satellite, and other technologies, the local usage of the internet is often spurred by government programs. Regional efforts can target underserved communities and provide training and content development for new users.

In Mexico, for example, where access to the internet is enshrined in the constitution, Mexico Conectado is a government program providing connectivity through parks and public building in order to bridge the digital divide and provide better government services.

A similar government program in Colombia, Vive Digital, has promoted millions of new internet connections through expansion of broadband and distribution of computers.

In Australia, nbn has built a wholesale local access broadband network with government support to serve disadvantaged communities.

Many countries have prepare forward-looking internet plans. A key component is often direct government support for connectivity and training.

Edtech in India

ByjusWhen broadband arrives, apps follow. Many initial uses of cellphones are for personal enjoyment (79% of time spent in India is on entertainment, search social and messaging). With time, however, other useful services involving health, education, finance and government services become popular.

As one example of this progression, the education technology (“edtech”) sector in India is now booming. The firm Byju’s, for example, has released an education app already downloaded over 14 million times (with 900,000 paid users). Byju’s uses innovative curriculum, such as a Bollywood dance troupe rhythmically moving to demonstrate the Pythagorean Theorem. If students don’t have a sufficient internet connection to download materials, Byju’s will send them a memory card with appropriate resources.

Byju’s boasts prominent investors including Sequoia Capital and Tencent and a valuation of $800 million.

India faces profound challenges in education: over half of fifth graders, for example, can’t read at a second grade level. The edtech sector is hoping to help.

Bridge International Academies

bridgeHundreds of millions of children have no school to attend. Hundreds of millions more attend schools with poor facilities, minimal supplies, and frequently absent teachers.

Because of this dire situation, a number of countries are experimenting with international private schools that focus on new technologies, broadband linkages, standardized curriculum, rigorous evaluation, and low cost.

The best known of these is probably Bridge International Academies, whose high profile is partly due to an august list of investors, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Omidyar Network, and World Bank. Bridge currently operates in five countries: Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India. Over 100,000 students attend one of more than 500 Bridge schools. Bridge aims to educate 10,000,000 pupils by 2025.

Bridge provides teachers with a tablet that includes all lesson plans in highly scripted formats. Bridge rigorously collects data about teacher and student progress. Administrative cost are kept low due to centralization of many tasks; each school requires just one administrator with a smartphone app. Costs for students depend on region and economic status. In Uganda, for example, parents pay about $66 per year, which is much cheaper than other private schools and roughly on par with “free” public schools that require a number of purchases.

Bridge points to studies which demonstrate that its students out-perform public school children.

Simultaneously, private school networks — and Bridge International Academies in particular — are lightening rods for an exceptionally high level of controversy. Bridge has had periodic conflict with ministries of education, teachers unions, and other organizations with strong opinions about education.

Financial Services in Developing Countries

mpesaAround two billion people on the planet are “unbanked” — which is to say they have no access to financial services. Their transactions are all in cash. Any savings need to be hidden in their home. They are vulnerable to crime. They can’t earn interest. They can’t transfer money to others. They don’t qualify for loans.

Fortunately, new technologies are offering important opportunities, particularly through cell phones.

The best-known and most celebrated online financial service utilizing cell phones is M-Pesa, launched in Kenya in 2007. M-Pesa allows users to deposit cash into their M-Pesa accounts (usually via the ubiquitous cell phone agents that sell users minutes all across Kenya), store money, and transfer money to others. They can also pay bills, purchase air time, and in some cases buy products.

The service spread quickly in Kenya, and currently includes over 25 million active users (which is about the entire adult population of the country). A study of M-Pesa by MIT and Georgetown researchers concluded that between 2008 and 2014, M-Pesa was responsible for lifting 200,000 families out of poverty (about 2% of total households).

M-Pesa has also been launched in Tanzania, South Africa, Afghanistan, India, and several Eastern European countries — to mixed success.

M-Pesa also provides a platform for other services. For example, the Kenyan company M-Kopa sells personal solar systems for households that are lacking electricity. Payments for the system are made daily for a year through M-Pesa. If a payment is missed, the system is disabled until payments resume.

Zipline

zipExpanding broadband enables many new opportunities in health, including telemedicine, distance education, data collection, and others.

It can also assist in logistics. One California company, Zipline, combines sophisticated drone technology with expanded communications coverage in rural areas of Africa in order to deliver lifesaving medical supplies.

In 2016, Zipline launched its initial service in partnership with the Government of Rwanda. Distant clinics in hard to reach areas (of which there are many in Rwanda) can send by phone a request for blood, medicine, vaccines, surgical supplies, or other pressing needs. A drone is sent carrying up to 1.5 kg, and releases the payload by parachute to a pre-determined area. The drones, powered by electricity, can manage a round trip of up to 160 km.

Centralizing storage of key medical supplies allows for lower inventories, better security, and safer storage (often requiring refrigeration).

Since operations began, Zipline has completed over 1,400 flights and 100,000 km in Rwanda.

Zipline has announced a major expansion into Tanzania, including four delivery centers supporting 2,000 flights per day to over 1000 clinics across the country. Flights are beginning in early 2018.

Digital Welcome Wagon

wagonWelcome Wagon: a welcoming service that provides information about a community to new residents.

— Collins English Dictionary

As the next several billion people come online, what would an appropriate Digital Welcome Wagon look like for them?

Currently, most people are handed a smartphone with some pre-loaded apps (determined by both the manufacturer and the service provider) and maybe some literature about their service plan. In some parts of the world this is supplemented with information about Facebook Basics. That’s about it.  (When I recently started a new service in Nicaragua, I also got instructions about how Facebook and WhatsApp don’t charge for data, and also immediately started receiving multiple text messages with “upsells” for more data, music services, and discounts at Pizza Hut.)

What would an ideal new online experience be for a new smartphone user? How about:

  • A welcome video in an appropriate language from a credible person to greet the new user;
  • A quick tutorial on five really useful basic services to know about (such as phone, texting, camera, weather information, calendar);
  • A curated list of one or two outstanding sites for news, health, education, finance, and government services;
  • What to do if you need help;
  • Simple tutorials for more information, including how to avoid problems with fake news, fraud, or other issues.

Ideally this would be developed and managed by either governmental or international organizations as to not favor any given corporation.

We’re soon being joined online by a few billion fellow humans. Let’s welcome them!