Cell phones: a platform for social innovation in emerging markets

The iPhone is not the only reason to be excited about mobile phone technology.  Smart social entrepreneurs and like-minded investors would be smart to think about the breadth of opportunities that a cell phone creates for citizens of emerging markets.

In 2009 it is expected that 1 billion cell phones will be sold worldwide.  Asia Pacific will increase its uptake from 1 in 4 to 1 in 3.  The New York Times recently reported that India adds more cellphone connections than any place in the world with 15.6 million added in March alone.

Cell phones are a hidden indicator of emerging market performance.  They open new markets by reducing distances and by increasing access to information.  This in turn stimulates efficiencies in productivity and amplifies commerce which improves local economies.  Increased wealth creates independence and leads to a more educated population which in turn, drives market-driven policy making and other reforms.

In 2005, the Grameen Foundation set the stage for emerging market cell phone adoption and launched the the “Village Phone” business in rural Bangladesh, publishing a how-to manual and setting up micro-finance loans to villagers in towns that had no access to telecommunications.   Four years later, entrepreneurs have finally caught on and despite the downturn, the last 6 months has shed light on a few innovative initiatives that have been announced in a variety of sectors around the world.

In February, the Gates Foundation in partnership with a worldwide consortium of mobile industries teamed up to announce the Mobile Money for the Unbanked (MMU) initiative.  With a goal of supplying 20 million people with mobile financial services by 2012, this program will enable those in developing countries to carry out mobile banking from their phones in order to protect and grow their money.

Several new projects in the area of HIV/AIDS education have also been announced recently.  Several providers are developing text messaging services to deliver HIV/AIDS health management services (medication regimens, appointments, advice/consultations).   And Project Masiluleke, borne of the social incubator Pop!Tech, will begin its first phase with 1,000,000 broadcast text messages to the general South African public on both HIV/AIDS and TB for a year. Metropolitan Life, an insurance company in South Africa has partnered with CellBook to provide an information booklet on HIV/AIDS that can be downloaded onto the cellphone.

The future of well-designed social innovation programs should take a look at the realities and economics of what is driving health and welfare in emerging markets.  Cell phones are a truly universal technology platform that will provide critical resources to populations of all class and trade.  Hopefully, the iPhone Labs aren’t the only place smart developers are spending their time in.

image credit: marceloconsultario on creative commons