M-services have the potential to change the way developing economies deliver essential social and economic services and attain sustainable growth, but it will take a combined and concerted effort to realize this potential.
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for social and economic development in emerging economies have long been a focus of governments, the private sector, and most certainly donors and international development agencies. Yes, despite all the attention garnered on this field, we are seeing a checkered history of ICTs as a tool for development, with both successes and significant failures littering the landscape.
With the phenomenal growth of mobile technology in the last ten years, the attention of donors, governments, and multi-lateral and international agencies has now turned to the telecommunications sector and mobile technologies as channels to deliver services and products to citizens at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
Likewise, large corporate players understand that the more than 2.6 billion people making less than $2 a day constitute a significant potential market for m-products and services. This population has access to communications technologies in unprecedented numbers. It is estimated, for example, that in Southeast Asia 55% of the overall population overall now has access to a mobile phone. In sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers are growing fast as well; according to latest numbers an average of 48% of the population has mobile phone access.
In Latin America the numbers are even more impressive. The vast majority of individuals there now have access to mobile phones with penetration rates of 86% on average across the region. The Middle East is equally highly penetrated with an average 80% market penetration across the region. [source: Wireless Intelligence]
Of course, this kind of penetration of a powerful technology, presents opportunities for healthcare, educatonal services, and economic development delivered over and spurred by mobile technology to populations that were previously extremely hard to reach. Getting the poorest millions connected to the information society will unlock new markets and drive the world economy to a different level. The estimated purchasing power of this market is debated but if one takes China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey, South Africa, and Thailand as a sample market, these countries collectively house 3 billion people with a GDP (adjusted to purchasing power parity) of $12.5 trillion. [source: Prahalad 2009]
While this market is undoubtedly large and attractive, it is also informal and highly fragmented. Tapping this market is not without significant difficulties for companies in many regions of the world.
It is therefore important to now seriously discuss the opportunities and critical success factors for scaling m-services – services and products for development delivered over the mobile platform – so that they can reach more people; improve more lives.
What are the barriers for scaling m-services? And how can industry, donors, and civil society organizations move from some of the many promising pilot projects in m-health, m-agriculture, and m-payments to economically viable m-services that increase the quality of life and drive economic growth for the poorest of people.
What kind of mobile services are we talking about?
There are a number of m-services particularly suited for scale that have been growing rapidly in many emerging economies. Some of these include:
The case for scale: Scaling-up is imperative. (Or: no mass, no cash, no impact.)
Mobile technology has changed the way the poorest people are connected. There are two key dimensions that allow us today to talk about the potential for scale: Access and affordability.
As a result of these factors, scaling m-services is within reach. There exists a strong demand for information and knowledge that mobile communications can effectively address. There are strong economics in place when services are overlaid using existing infrastructure and delivery mechanisms. There are products such as information services delivered via mobile and mobile payments, for example, that are inherently scalable and potentially replicable across geographies; and the cost of deployments are rapidly dropping. There is a market able to pay and there are relevant intermediaries and increasingly ecosystems of players in place.
But most importantly, there is a moral imperative to scale potentially life-changing solutions. Al Hammond of NextBillion.net might have put it best when he said: “Ever since we finished our report on The Next 4 Billion, the numbers haunt me. How do we meet the unmet needs of four billion people?”
As the report points, out, the starting point is not the poverty of individuals at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Instead, it is the fact that these population segments for the most part are not integrated into the global market economy and do not benefit from it. According to The Next 4 Billion, they also share other characteristics:
However, contrary to when ‘The Next 4 Billion’ was written, individuals at the bottom of the economic pyramid now have access to telecommunication technology in unprecedented numbers and with that, the potential to access markets, information services, health care, and education, to name just a few – delivered through and with the help of mobile tech.
And yet, despite the access and opportunity mobile technology presents for m-services, and the social and increasingly business imperatives, it’s been noted that the theory, practice, and ‘literature of scaling up is reminiscent of the Loch Ness Monster. It has been sighted enough to make the most sceptical give it a measure of respectability; and its description is as varied as the people who have written about it.” (Peter Uvin and David Miller, Scaling Up: Thinking Through the Issues). And even though these words were written in 1994, they largely hold true today.
What is “Scale”?
Scaling m-services, for the purposes of this discussion, refers first and foremost to simple economics. In a scaled operation, the average unit price declines, and marginal costs of adding another customer are low, and the process is simple and extremely fast. The second dimension of scale is one of arithmetic. The magnitude of global poverty necessitates information services and products that reach billions of people with discrete products reaching at least millions of people. [Prahalad 2009] Paraphrasing noted author and academic Clay Shirky in regard to scale in social development: ‘First make it work, then make it cheap.”
The argument has been made that scale will take care of itself, that scaling in m-services will happen simply if we create the right products and tools that have value for the user. And indeed, in comparison to other ICTs in emerging markets, there may be something unique about mobile technology. After all, the hardware is selling itself with 4.1 billion people having access to it already. In other words, the delivery platform is already largely in place. Focusing then on m-services rather than on the infrastructure and hardware, the attention shifts to the more established question of how users adopt new services, especially at the bottom of the economic pyramid with its unique constraints. [source, Jonathan Donner, private conversation]
Barriers to scaling m-services
At the same time as there are significant opportunities for large-scale m-services, there remain barriers to scaling up today. Customers at the bottom of the economic pyramid have low ARPUs – the magic number that refers to the average revenue per user that telecoms measure as a key profitability indicator – and very high price sensitivity, making sustainable business models more complicated for operators and information service providers alike. There are strong language and literacy barriers with a scarcity of relevant and accurate content available today. Smart handsets and data services are still out of reach to the majority of the world due to costs and access, restricting m-services to BOP customers largely to the channels with the lowest common denominators: voice and SMS.
Many attempts at scaling up services to date have failed with only very few (and often described) services like m-payments in Kenya and the Philippines deemed successes. Many of the failed efforts share similar characteristics however, that when carefully studied, indicate what indeed might work. So, for example, M-Pesa’s initial attempts at developing an m-payment system in Kenya were not successful. (This is in marked contrast, of course, to try #2, M-Pesa’s current iteration which has grown rapidly and is being expanded regionally across East Africa by the operator). And yet, the first failure was illustrative.
The initial offering was built for an institutional market, rather than the general public; the service offering was complex as opposed to exceedingly simple; the target market was a subset of the overall market as opposed to a mass market; and the products required new behaviours as opposed making existing behaviours that customers were familiar with more simple and easy. [source: GSMA Development Fund presentation]
Other current barriers to scaling m-services include the existing points of friction in the mobile industry today. For example, there is intense competition among operators which do not have a strong history of negotiation or shared approaches (other than interconnections) and who will need to consider, for example, new models and approaches in shared services and infrastructure. For example, there may be promise in shared agent networks as information intermediaries that can act as ‘on-the-ground’ sales and help personnel to scale services and train and employ a sizeable workforce. (This approach is also referred to as “paraskilling’ as a promising but not uncomplicated business model for m-payments, for example).
Similarly, shared network infrastructure specifically in sub-Saharan Africa as is already the prevalent business model of operators in India, may become en economic necessity as downward price pressure and redundant network infrastructure increases. Likewise, mobile network operators need to consider new technology products that are conducive to m-services such as such as data-rich MMS, increasing the length of SMS to more than 160 characters, and USSD services.
Critical Success Factors for m-Services at Scale
In a review of the literature and more than a dozen conversations with key stakeholders, there are a number of strong themes that emerged as critical success factors for providing m-services at significant scale.
1. Utility and User Needs:
One of the key themes mentioned over and over again can be summarized as ‘meeting a customers pain’, that is solving real-life problems for people at the bottom of the pyramid. In other words, any offering has to be of clear and direct value to the user or customer today. This is often referred to as ‘utility’ – the ability of a good or service to fulfill a human want. Projects that failed, for the most part, tended to put their institutional needs first as opposed to those of the end user. While this may sound simple and obvious, in the field of social and economic development, it is a remarkably-often ignored proposition. Keeping the end user in mind and how it benefits their lives are paramount in considering what products might be able to be scaled.
Putting user needs and their desire for specific services first and foremost will require local partners, user-centric innovation processes including ethnographic and market research, needs assessments, rapid prototyping, and frequent feedback and sounds feedback loops to ensure that services and products indeed address user needs.
2. An Ecosystem of Partners:
Another theme that emerged is the importance of ecosystems of networks of companies, organizations and individuals that need to be in place for the entire value chain for m-services to take root, grow, and go to scale. As has been pointed out in the realm of mobile money, the key rule of growth there is partnerships. [Jenkins 2008] These players in an ecosystem of m-services include mobile network operators, retailers and local sales agents, regulators, banks, government ministries, local businesses, international donors, and civil society organizations, for example. These players have varying incentive and assets as well as limitations that need to be clearly understood in order to grow a successful ecosystem for scaled services. [Jenkins 2008]
Related to this network of partners is the potential role that so-called infomediaries play. In the field of m-payments, it has become obvious that the network of agents is critical with all the concomitant difficulties of having a wide-reach network of trained and trusted agents in place that act as touch points with BOP customers. This infomediary role, of agents, so important in mobile financial services, may very well play a critical role in other m-services as well.
3. Domain Experts:
A third key theme is the importance of domain expertise in the specific m-services. It was noted in our interviews that, in fact, m-services are mainly not about mobile technology per se but about mobile communications and networks as delivery channels for information that require expertise in health systems, banking and payments, developing business models, and operationalizing large-scale deployments, extending existing services to a mobile channel.
4. New Business Models:
To significantly scale m-services to the bottom of the pyramid customers may require rethinking existing business models, including non-commercial or soft funding at the start-up phases of m-services. Donors and multilateral institutions may well have a role to play in providing capital investments until revenue from m-services starts to materialize. Additionally, international financial institutions and development donors may play a role in building out the capacity of the some of the smaller players in a m-services ecosystem, such as agents, retailers, and domain content providers in health and education, for example.
Business models for m-services for the bottom of the economic pyramid also need to take into consideration the extreme price sensitivity of these customers and their very limited purchasing power that is small, irregular, and expensive to tap. Irregular cash flow is one of the key barriers in developing sustainable business models at the BOP and needs to be addressed. Affordability, cost to serve, and customer cash flow are the critical issues that necessitate a relentless drive in m-services to lower costs and that need to be a key ingredient of a successful business model. [Frandano 2009]
5. Technical Considerations
A number of technical issues also will need to be addressed rather soon to increase the scale of m-services. Several that have been noted in my conversations with stakeholders:
An enabling environment and the role of government
While ‘regulation’ has a negative connotation in many circles, it is nonetheless an essential component of an enabling environment for mobile services. However, the role of regulation should be concerned with two key components: Ensuring trust in mobile services, and inclusion into information services delivered via mobile for the most vulnerable populations.
Governments can also become key customers in the effort to scale m-services. In the area of m-payments and financial transactions, it may be necessary, for example, that ministries of paying out wages and salaries as well as social benefit payments take on m-payments as a some of the largest payers in a given country. Similarly, governments play a critical role in using mobile channels in healthcare delivery and educational services. In fact, it may well be that in those countries where governments are taking a proactive role in leveraging the mobile channel deliver government services, scale along a variety of other services becomes possible faster and more simply with enabling regulation in the interest of government itself.
Mobile services at scale represent an enormous area of potential growth, and social and financial inclusion of the most vulnerable populations. Currently, the field of m-services is littered with small-scale pilots, many of which are NGO and donor-initiated, that have little chance to scale to have longer-term impact and sustainability. To ensure this potential for increasing inclusion of more people in the information society to better their lives and well-being, all players in the mobile ecosystem need to rethink some of their existing strategies and consider what constitutes critical success factors in their given national and regional environments.
MNOs need to develop new alliances and consider new business models and increase their channels, governments need to become large-scale customers using mobile services for their citizens while ensuring through careful and limited regulation that there is an enabling environment for realizing the potential
Civil society organizations will play a key role as content providers and domain experts in a given field such as health care and education for example, and through value-added market research. Donors and multi-lateral agencies will be instrumental in offering innovative financing for start-up mobile services before they can become profitable.
M-services have the potential to change the way developing economies deliver essential social and economic services and attain sustainable growth. It will take a combined and concerted effort to realize this potential.
This piece was originally published on MobileActive.org (http://mobileactive.org/scaling-mobile-services-development-what-will-it-take) and re-published here by permission.
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Katrin Verclas is Co-Founder and Editor of MobileActive.org, a global network of people and organizations using mobile phones for social impact. MobileActive.org convenes mobile activists, shares knowledge and skills, and provides a peer network, training and resources to NGOs interested in exploring mobile phones in their civic engagement, mobilization and action campaigns. Katrin's background is in IT management, IT in social change organizations, and in philanthropy. She has led several nonprofit organizations, including as the Executive Director of NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network, the national association of IT professionals working in the more than one million nonprofit organizations in the United States. She is a frequent speaker on ICTs in civil society at national and international conferences and has published numerous articles and publications on technology for social change in leading popular and industry publications. She is 2009 TED Fellow and a fellow at the MIT Media Lab.