Mobiles make the world a small place

Written by Liz Galpin Friday, 15 April 2011 06:24
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One could spend all day reading articles about how mobiles, the internet and mobile money is changing the world, specifically the developing world.

There is no shortage of coverage on how simple solutions are being used to impact upon peoples lives. Success stories are everywhere, with products like mPedigree, systems in place for Aid workers to check on their patients via SMS, systems for farmers to insure their crops against drought…... The list goes on and on and it is heartening to read these stories. Frontline SMS could supply a very long list, I’m sure.

The postal service in Africa has always been limited! Landlines in Africa,  – with the same problems! All those miles and miles of cables, just asking for the copper wire to be plundered to make necklaces, bracelets and the rest. I have ‘fond’ memories of the early days of putting computer systems in place for Anglo America. Not a month went by without the connections to one or other of the mines being totally lost because the cables had been sabotaged to get at the copper. All that disruption and all that effort to restore communications, only for them to be sabotaged a few months later….. But essentially, Africa, with its vast empty spaces, and small, rural communities, towns and the occasional city which are far apart, has always provided many challenges when it came to implementing communication infrastructures.

But the mobile, and satellite internet connections – that one really, really works in Africa. Of course, it works in the UK as well, but in the UK, Europe and North America, where people have been using the telephone, then the fax, then email and the internet over which to conduct business for a long time now. Postal services and travel via road, rail and air have been excellent for many years (although this may be a controversial statement, but relative to those same services in Africa, trust me, they have been pretty awesome). Businesses, business processes and sales techniques have evolved over a period of time, making use of the advances in technology and improved communications infrastructure, as each new convenience became available. What I think is important, is that these processes evolved by always taking some legacy processes and procedures with them, as each new innovation became available and widely adopted. But Africa has just leap–frogged over all of this! From having virtually no means of communication in rural parts of the country, and relatively poorer infrastructure in the more urban parts, from having to physically go from A to B to get business done, to buy or sell goods, to find out whether anyone wants to buy your produce today, or to see whether your medicine is in stock - in a flash there is just SO much technology available to address these problems and to provide new ways of doing business or going about your everyday life. It means that business in Africa will not follow the same patterns of evolution as they have done in so-called developed markets. Entirely new ways of doing business are being born – gathering from the media coverage and internet articles which are published, it feels as though there is something new being born every day. Mobiles and the Internet have arrived, and all in a rush. There seems to be a great clamour to utilise these technologies, and it feels as though there will be areas where developing markets can overtake developed markets, purely because it will be simpler and easier to implement new systems from scratch, specifically designed to make use of the technology that is available.

So - if we look at mobile money in Kenya. Lots of things are now possible to be done from your mobile, very quickly and easily. In the UK I can’t just decide to send my mother £20, pick up my mobile and send her the money in under 2 minutes. Of course, I can safely and reliably send her the money via a number of other means – I could buy an M&S Gift voucher and post it to her, I could write out a cheque (although that one is soon going to change – wonder how that will affect lives in the UK?), I could sign onto my internet bank account and transfer the money into her account. But I’m willing to bet that it will take more than 2 minutes. On the other hand, there are many, many things I can do in the UK with the minimum of effort - I can, probably, find a shop that will do cash back on my debit card nearby, or pop to an ATM to withdraw cash, use my debit card to buy goods or book a Ryanair flight. I can also set up a direct debit to pay my utility bills. And that one (the direct debit) still hasn’t been resolved by mobile money, to my knowledge.

On the health front, in the UK I always assume when I visit my GP, that my patient notes are readily available to him on his computer, although probably 10 years ago the GP would have referred to my paper file in front of him. But he’s always been able to check on my records to get a feel for my patient history. If we contrast this with clinics which are run out in Africa, health workers aren’t able to remember the details of every patient they see, and record keeping on patient conditions and treatments has been pretty ropey. In many instances, the notes are written down in an exercise book – not recorded on a file, or alphabetically, and so the chances of being able to retrieve those records, or maintain any sort of continuity between clinics have been really rather remote. The mobile phone potentially changes all of that. A centrally hosted database could very easily start to be built up, so that health workers could access the information via their mobiles, and then update the patient details to record the latest consultation information. As long as the user interface on the mobile was well designed, so that it wasn’t a time consuming exercise, this would be perfectly achievable. It would then mean that patients could be informed via SMS when the next relevant clinic was being held in their area, or when new stocks of their drugs were delivered to a nearby centre.

These are just small comparisons and examples, but they are quite important. In the UK we will see a greater move towards being able to use our mobiles to transact, but I feel that the systems will be more complex, because of the complexity and diversity of our financial systems in place over here. We probably won’t see our GPs grabbing their mobiles to update our patient records, but that’s because there is no need for that, and the legacy systems in place are functional.

In Africa, the technology learning curve is very steep, but it is being embraced with enthusiasm and vigour. Inevitably the younger generation are the ones quicker to embrace the facebooks of this world, but mobile phones, mobile money and other benefits that can be derived from all this technology are catching on, regardless of age.

I am convinced that Cloud computing, coupled with mobile technology, provides a greater benefit in Africa and other developing countries, because of their geography and demographics.

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