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Handheld Poverty Fighters: Building the Killer Apps of Global Prosperity

Among many of those in the development space, connective technologies are either the cheat code to global prosperity or a false prophet.

Among many in the development space, connective technologies are either the cheat code to global prosperity or a false prophet obscuring the real challenges affecting the world’s poor. Officials as high-ranking as Secretary Hillary Clinton have called the spread of cheap cell phones and laptops a driving force against poverty even as many of their most promising applications are failing to deliver on scale. Regardless of which camp you belong to, its hard to ignore the fact that even the poorest citizens have access to mobile technology and we are more connected than ever before.


Today, hundreds of small, locally relevant applications are driving development in less sexy, but equally important ways as a new crop of entrepreneurs are learning to leveraging global connectedness to improve the lives and in the process transforming industries and markets in many of the ways the internet did here. While they vary in size and in tactic, they are bound by a common thread of which aspiring change makers should take note.

Their successes can be measured in at least one, and often all three, of the following ways:

Closing the Information Gap

A defining characteristic of connective technologies has been the diffusion of information. From its earliest incarnation as ARPANET, the Internet has widened access to privileged intelligence. For businesses, this has flattened asymmetries in markets, allowing new businesses to compete against larger incumbents and innovate in the global market. However in much of the underdeveloped world, where cellphones are more popular than laptops and simple messaging systems are more widely used than the Internet, the benefits of the web have not been fully leveraged. In agriculture, where information from crop prices to weather conditions are vital, several new projects are attempting to close the information gap by suppling real-time data to the world’s most remote businesses.

M-Farm, a start-up based in Kenya, delivers up-to-date information on local agriculture markets over SMS and keeps a database of crop prices on its website. Farmers accessing the service can send a text message to a short code or visit the companies website to properly price their goods and find buyers for their produce. Another Kenyan start-up, called iCow, has created the world’s first mobile cow calendar which sends dairy farmers important updates and scheduled reminders to optimize their production. The services have received support and plaudits from major aid organizations and struck partnerships with leading technology companies to scale the services across the networks.

Matching Supply and Demand

Another powerful feature of the consumer web has been the creation of efficient markets. By virtually eliminating the cost of distribution and leveraging network effects, sites like eBay and Craigslist toppled barriers of geography and access to match supply with demand on a tremendous scale.

At the bottom of the pyramid, where markets are systemically crippled by inefficiencies and entrenched interests, technologies are only beginning to be deployed in this way. An early example, originally developed at MIT, was the mobile marketplace CellBazaar, which peaked at 4 million users in Bagladesh before being purchased by the Norwegian telecom Telenor in 2010. A text and voice powered mobile service, it replicated many of the features of Craigslist to connect buyers and suppliers across the country.

More recent initiatives are drawing on elements of the social web to deliver quality control in less stable markets like employment. The SMS service DUMA, founded by Princeton grads Arielle Sandor and Christine Blauvelt, is building a mobile job market in Kenya designed to match the most qualified employees with the most promising opportunities. The team is wrapping up development on a resume generator and will be adding social recommendations and performance reviews building a layer of trust on top of their powerful network for social change. (DUMA is a finalist in the Intel She Will Innovate Challenge where you can vote for them.)

Creating Earned Income Opportunities for Entrepreneurs

Though technology is more often associated with the job destruction than creation, in under industrialized economies where distribution is fragmented and supply is scarce, technology provides a livelihood for many entrepreneurs. Human networks distribute and sell everything from single use shampoo packets to mobile SIM cards, created earned income opportunities for enterprising people along each step of the way.

For many of the world’s unbanked, cellphone minutes function as an alternative currency and are used in lieu of cash for everyday purchases and payments. Where electricity is unreliable, entrepreneurs set up mobile charging stations from power strips and get paid on each use. For more expensive goods, like inkjet printers, entrepreneurs invest and build small businesses distributing their use.

Together these technologies will have to be rethought and repurposed for the bottom of the pyramid, and considered for their role in development. The trick will be to find intelligent ways to tailor appropriate solutions to the challenges that plague the world’s poor.

Tell me about your killer apps and how you’re leveraging connective technologies to drive prosperity.

Photo via Flickr (cc) user futureatlas.com.

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