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Mobile Phones For Social Good: The Case Of Africa

We often think of innovation as the invention of something entirely new - a new technology, a new product, a new medication. But innovation also means the application of something that already exists to a new problem or a new context. Such is the case with mobile phones and their use in Africa to dramatically improve living standards by saving wasted trips, providing information about crop prices, summoning medical help and even serving as a conduit to banking services.

Economist and emerging markets expert Jeffrey Sachs calls mobile phones “the single most transformative technology for development.” Leonard Waverman, chairman of the economics faculty at London Business School, has shown that a 10% increase in a developing country’s mobile phone penetration adds 0.6 percentage points to the economic growth rate of the countryThe World Bank claims that number to be 0.8 percentage points. So how exactly is mobile technology used in Africa to innovate products and services for social good?

The quick answer is that mobile phones have transformed the banking, agriculture, healthcare, education and non-profit industries in Africa.

Mobile phones have allowed people in Africa to reinvent how we interact with money. M-PESAOrange MoneyMobiPay, MiMoneyMTN Mobile Money and even Western Union are some of the major  players that allow customers to transfer money and make payments even without a bank account, just with a simple text message. M-PESA, the most popular mobile money platform, was first used as a way for young, male urban migrants to send money back to their families in the countryside. It is now used to pay for everything from school fees to taxis. Teachers in Rwanda receive their salaries via mobile money and retirees in Kenya receive their pensions the same way. It is no surprise then that while only 20% of Kenyan families have bank accounts, 68% of Kenyan adults use mobile money transactions.

Since 2002 SMS has been changing agriculture in Africa. The biggest challenge for smallholder farmers in Africa used to be the lack of transparent information about the market prices of crops. Today such information and even more is available through a simple text message. CocoaLink, a program launched by the Ghana Cocoa Board, The Hershey Company and the World Cocoa Foundation, provides cocoa farmers with useful information about improving farming practices, safety, crop disease prevention, marketing, etc.

mHealth initiatives have revolutionized healthcare in Africa improving communication between field and clinical staff, diagnostics and prevention. FrontlineSMS significantly improves the communication between field and clinical stuff, thus improving the diagnosis process. Ghana’s 2000 GPs can send and receive free text messages from their patients. In Nigeria, teenagers can text questions about HIV/AIDS and receive answers. In South Africa, people can text “HIV” followed by their location and receive an SMS with the location of the two nearest traveling testing units.

There are numerous other examples of the innovative use of mobile phones in Africa for social good from providing resources to non-profit organizations to fighting corruption and violence against women.

It is a humbling and inspiring experience to watch the innovative use of mobile phones for social good in Africa and how a technology that has existed for decades is affecting all four Ps of the marketing mix: product, place, price and promotion. Even simple technology such as text messaging can take the cost and infrastructure implications out and affect the product, the price and the place, thus giving us the opportunity not just to promote businesses, but to profoundly transform them and create sustainable impact for millions of people. 

Andreana Drencheva is an independent strategist who has worked across a variety of industries (higher education, research and development, health care and wellness, sports, technology and online publishing) for traditional non-for-profit and for-profit ventures, as well as for… [Read more about Andreana Drencheva]

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