Aug 28 2013 by Linda Raftree


According to the latest GSMA statistics, nearly 50% of people own a mobile phone in the developing world and almost 70% have access to mobile phones. With mobile access increasing daily, opportunities to use mobiles in development initiatives continue to grow and expand.

The area of Mobiles for Development (M4D) has attracted investment from all sides, including mobile operators, entrepreneurs, investors and international development agencies – all working to generate social impact and improve wellbeing at the base of the pyramid. However, efforts to scale M4D initiatives and make them sustainable have largely failed.


Our July 25th NYC Technology Salon examined the topic of Scaling M4D. Lead discussants Corina Gardner from the GSMA’s Mobile Development Intelligence (MDI) unit and Sean McDonald from FrontlineSMS joined us to kick off the conversation, which was hosted at the Rockefeller Foundation.

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The Salon started off with key points from the MDI report “Scaling Mobile for Development: A developing world opportunity,” which highlights the issue of sustainable and scaled impact as the central challenge (and opportunity) in M4D over the next five years.

Because the GSMA is commercially focused (it is made up of telecommunication industry members), business models that can achieve both revenue goals and added value to customers are a core concern. GSMA is interested in finding M4D business models that convince industry to re-invest and replicate. However not many of these examples exist.

Business models at the base of the pyramid (BOP) tend to be different than what the industry is used to. If scale is defined as the number of people reached with a service, and the population being reached has little money, then the only clear business model is via a huge customer base. Given that international development agencies also want to achieve scale with development programs, there is a good potential overlap in M4D. In order to achieve good impact, it’s critical to think through what BOP users want and need, and what offers real value to them for their limited resources.

Innovative vehicles are needed for investing in M4D. Currently, M4D financing tends to take two distinct paths: International Development funding and Venture Capital (VC) funding. Hiccups occur because the two operate very differently and do not always work well together. International development funds and processes do not move as quickly as technology-based funds. There is low tolerance for uncertainty and a desire for initial proof of potential impact, adoption and uptake. On the VC side, there is the desire for a light overhead structure modeled after Silicon Valley; however in African countries, for example, there is little existing infrastructure, meaning a heavier structure and a slower process. In addition, the exit strategy may not be clear. A worst-case scenario is when one of the two types of financing bodies is interested in investing, yet both walk away when they see the other at the table.

Though very few examples of M4D at scale exist, some elements brought up during the Salon that need to be considered include:

User-centric design.

It is critical to understand the community and the end user’s needs, demands, and payment capacity. Both the private sector and international development agencies have existing approaches to developing M4D initiatives that focus on understanding local context and consultation and engagement with users, but the two sectors use different language to describe these approaches and they often talk past each other without connecting on their commonalities. According to one discussant, the best and most user friendly design is that with the lowest barrier to access, the simplest technology, the cleanest interface and configurability, so that people can build in more complexity if needed. These types of design will also tend to be the most replicable, an important element of scale. Iterative design and getting prototypes in front of users is needed to get their feedback, and this can be a challenge in M4D programs if they are being done within typical international development cycles of planning and funding.

User data.

Users at the base of the pyramid are both financially poor and “data poor” and companies cannot create products for users that they know nothing about. Mobile can help gather data on user behaviors. This data can be used to inform business models, create products and services of value for BOP users, and to create revenue streams. One key question is that of how the data be better used to benefit the BOP more broadly?

Understanding what ‘scale’ means for different parties.

For mobile operators, scale is important because it is linked to numbers, volume and revenue. However this is not the element that matters for those working in international development, where impact may be a more important measure of success. Uptake of an M4D service may be due to advertising, rather than because it has a real impact on the lives of a user. The difference needs to be understood and better analyzed and documented before success, scale, or impact is claimed.

One measure of success is improved and sustained functioning of broader systems — and mobile may only be one small piece of a well-functioning development program, information ecosystem, or service delivery effort. As one discussant noted, “I don’t care if someone uses mobile banking or branch banking, so long as they are banking.” The mobile device may not be the central piece; it may be an additional access point for people who were formerly left out of these systems. In addition, “reaching” people is different than “influencing” people, and the latter will likely have more of an impact. Trust is critical in these efforts to influence, and often that takes more than a mobile connection.


The case for improved networks, coverage ,and other infrastructure (electricity, for example) needs to be made to operators and government. The urban-rural divide when it comes to infrastructure is a global issue, not just one in the so-called ‘developing economies.’ For example, using 4G and a credit card, someone can order a product on Amazon from the DRC, however Amazon will not be able to deliver that product. Similarly, someone can report poor government services via a mobile phone, but until infrastructure and governance improves, there may be no response. Poor infrastructure in rural areas is an issue globally.


Operators incorrectly give away free SMS to NGOs, said one discussant. Instead, having to pay a small amount (either as an NGO or an end user) means that much more care is taken in terms of what is communicated. “If it costs 5 cents to send a message, you will not spam people.” This is also critical for building in sustainability, and where the best ROI tends to be found in technology influenced programming. More thought and research is needed when thinking through payment and sustainable, scalable models.

Due diligence.

A challenge in the M4D space is the high incidence of people seeing a problem, thinking no one has addressed it, and jumping in to build their own solution. This wastes money and time and creates churn. It is important to do research, layer, and build from other people’s ideas and existing solutions. One problem with the idea of due diligence, according to a participant, is that it means different things to different people.

In technology it means “you have a problem, what is the cheapest and most robust solution,” but in the field of international development, context discovery takes a very long time and requires multidisciplinary knowledge and awareness that goes far beyond technology. There is also a need to consider whether technology (as opposed to non-digital efforts) is the most viable solution for the information and communication situation. ‘Horizontal due diligence’ (looking at partnerships) and due diligence with regard to maximizing systems are also needed.

Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E).

M&E is currently sub-par on most M4D initiatives, said one participant. Organizations are often doing their own M&E rather than having a third party conduct external M&E.  There is a lack of comparative data on M4D programs also, and often M&E is attempted at the end of a project rather than built in from the start. A greater presence of academia is needed in M4D work, it was noted, and we also need more qualitative data, as currently the emphasis is on the quantitative data that are collected more easily via mobiles.

One benefit in M4D programs is the ability to digitize and intelligently store data from the very start. This is the way to show scale and impact, said another participant. However data need to be well-used and refined, and available to the right person or people at the right time. Greater respect and understanding of privacy and ethical issues along with helping people to understand and steward their users data are also critically important and need more attention.


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