How can we overcome gaps in Mobile for Development (M4D) projects?

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Heather Thorne is Director ICT Innovation, at the Grameen Foundation Technology Center. This is the first in a series of three blog posts on the M4D space.

The growth in the use of mobile phones in developing countries presents a powerful channel directly to the poor and poorest, and introduces a productive asset that can be used by rural entrepreneurs to generate income, and reach those who don’t yet have access on their own. 

“Mobile for Development”, or M4D, has become one of the central areas of investment and focus in the technology and development communities over the last two years.  The goal of such efforts is to use mobile technology and related services to directly or indirectly address the problem of poverty.

While these efforts have captured the eye of the press and fueled the eagerness of the donor and practitioner communities, we believe there are a number of gaps in many of the approaches to date, which limit the potential of M4D efforts to yield solutions that are not only impactful in small settings, but that can scale in a sustainable way.  The gaps we see, and the ways we are seeking to overcome them, include:

  1. In most cases, information and technology alone are not the solution. Solving hard social challenges, and in particular, alleviating poverty, is rarely possible by simply making technology available to people with limited skills or understanding of how to search for or apply information.   And information is rarely valuable on its own unless provided in direct context, at the right time, in an actionable form, appropriate language, etc.   This is where the notion of a trusted intermediary comes into play, serving as a bridge to those who are illiterate, do not read English, or own phones, creating awareness of services, and answering questions.
  2. Scalability is necessary, but not sufficient, for achieving lasting impact. Technologies, partnerships, operations, business models, and organizations all need to be scalable in order for M4D efforts to have impact – but focusing on scaling –especially when the economics look good—before proving that a solution has the desired impact first distracts stakeholders from the primary goal.   This requires that social performance measurement be included at various steps in the product development process, and a willingness to revisit your approach until you are achieving the desired impact.
  3. Achieving sustainability is HARD. There is definite potential for sustainable business models in M4D, through cross-subsidization, advertising, sponsored content, loyalty programs, bundling, subscriptions, etc. – but low ability/willingness to pay requires that solutions have a strong value proposition—for the poor and for all stakeholders.  Efforts must be undertaken to validate user needs, test products, operations and business models, to ensure that users will continue to use the service, and that stakeholders derive enough perceived value from offering the solution pay for its ongoing delivery.
  4. Insufficient or short-term grant funding often means that prototyping is possible, but even if promising solutions are identified, the partnerships, field operations, and model-proving pilots don’t have sufficient runway, and there is no time for impact measurement.  Most M4D / social innovation challenges provide limited funding and timeframes (< 1 year), but our experience suggests that effective prototyping, partnership and operations development generally takes >1-2 years to complete.


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