Nigel Waller, CEO and founder of Movirtu, explained his company's idea to an audience of social entrepreneurs and technologists in London at the inaugural Africa Gathering conference last month. The conference, co-founded by IT consultant Edward Scotcher and online artist and activist Mark Simpkins, and hosted by the London International Development Centre, focused on technological innovation in Africa.
Movirtu – a for-profit enterprise – is working with mobile operators to connect the unconnected in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Its mobile phone number service, five years in the making, has recently been launched and its full commercial operations are due to begin this summer.
Movirtu's idea is another example of innovation in the fast-moving mobile phone sector – an industry already widely credited with improving livelihoods and helping lift people out of poverty. Recent research by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations has shown that an increase in mobile phone penetration of 10% is linked to raising economic growth by 1.2%.
Mobile telephony is seen as a way of leapfrogging the conventional development process as it bypasses the more extensive and expensive infrastructure needed to establish fixed line phones. For example, it enables poor people, particularly in remote areas, such as Katine, to access valuable information and services instantly, including the price of goods in local markets, mobile banking services and public health text messages.
In Katine mobile phones are being used by farmers to find out where to get the best prices for their crops.
Millions of Africans are embracing the latest mobile technology. Figures from the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency, show that nearly 90% of all phone calls in Africa are made using mobiles and Africa is the region experiencing the fastest growth in mobile telephony.
The mobile revolution has brought with it entrepreneurship and positive change.
Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net, which specialises in the application of mobile technology, told the Africa Gathering conference about his development of free, large-scale text messaging solutions to empower NGOs working in developing countries. The system, called FrontlineSMS, enables instantaneous two-way communication by connecting computers and mobile phones wherever there is a mobile signal. The software does not require the internet and has been adopted for many purposes based on the needs of grassroots organisations worldwide – from Senegal to the Philippines. FrontlineSMS has been used to disseminate agricultural information, send security alerts and help monitor elections.
It this innovation continues, the benefits of mobile technology to Africa, and places like Katine, could be great.