Digital and Development

21 Aug 2014

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There’s no stopping the evolution of digital technology. Since the first iPhone dropped in 2007 we’ve seen tablet computers, 4K TVs, smart watches, Google Glass and even Tupac holograms. But, it’s not just about the incredible, ground-breaking advances which make the digital evolution so revolutionary; in many cases it’s the smaller, simpler developments which can have the biggest impact.

Digital technologies have had a huge impression in the developing world: from mobile banking to healthcare, digital and international development have come together for the greater good, like an awesome altruistic superhero.

Bridging Gaps

Digital technology is so ingrained in today’s way of life that we rely on it for so much of modern culture, and as a result is one of the huge dividers separating more economically developed countries with those which have developed less. In Japan, for example, there is about one line of broadband per person, whilst in Latin America this drops to 15 lines per 100 people. A recent report, “Bridging Gaps, Building Opportunities” is the result of discussions between stakeholders such as technology companies, telecommunications companies and international agencies around the importance of bridging the digital gap.

The report shows that increased broadband penetration in Latin America and the Caribbean could “boost domestic product by 2.3% and raise productivity by 2.6%”. It’s pretty clear that developing the technological infrastructure will in turn develop the geo-political infrastructure, creating improved opportunities and bridging the economic gap.

Haiti provides a very tangible example: mobile technology has sparked a whole host of innovative micro-finance schemes. People are reselling mobile credit for a small profit using the top-up vouchers almost as a secondary currency. This type of entrepreneurship would not be possible without the rise of digital technology.

Banking on Mobile

Carol Realini, the executive chairman of Obopay described Africa as the “Silicon Valley of banking” and claimed that it would change the world.

Affordability has had a huge part to play in the expansion of mobile use on the African continent: there are currently 500 million mobile phones in use making mobile banking a no-brainer. But it was Kenyan mobile network Safaricom which revolutionised banking in East Africa when they introduced their M-Pesa service allowing users to store money on their phones. Transferring money or paying bills could be done via a simple text message, and the recipient could then cash the text in any M-Pesa store. M-Pesa provided vital banking services for millions who were previously unable to afford surcharges or even access a bank.

A similar service to Kenya’s hugely successful M-Pesa has been introduced in neighbouring Uganda: MobileMoney from MTN Uganda was established in 2009 and now as over 1.5 million users. The network covers 85% of the country, and wherever there is coverage there is MobileMoney. Not only has this provided access to fair banking, but it has helped promote the digital revolution throughout the country, resulting in other ingenious micro-finance ideas.

Access to mobile has also proved useful for farming communities in rural Uganda. The Grameen Foundation looks to use mobile to improve agricultural resilience and production by leasing mobiles to farmers and sharing information such as market prices, planting advice, seasonal weather reports and even disease diagnostics. The idea is that farmers pass the knowledge on to their neighbours, so numerous families can benefit from the service.

It seems that Carol Realini could be right: it is going to change the world. People have been given access to banking services, they are able to save money securely and manage their earnings. The digital world is definitely a force for good, not just for Facebook.

Accessible Healthcare

Accessible healthcare is a huge stumbling block in many developing countries around the world. Often so many communities are hindered by easily treatable problems which, with access to healthcare, could be prevented. That’s where mobile healthcare comes in.

Peek Vision looks to expand accessible eye care, which aims to create an “easy to use, affordable and portable system for testing eyes anywhere in the world”. By harnessing mobile apps, Peek Vision is looking to empower health workers to help prevent blindness around the world. Currently 39 million people around the world are blind and 80% if blindness is avoidable. A product and service such as this just would not be possible without the power of mobile.

With great digital comes great innovation

The coming together of the digital and developing worlds has the power for great results, and it’s apps like MobileMoney and Peek which help change the way digital technology is perceived. Yes, it’s really cool to see what futuristic tech is on the horizon, and even more cool that we can watch a man jump from the edge of space live on the internet, but it’s also incredible that because of the same technology I use to Snapchat, millions of people in some of the poorest regions in the world are able to live happier and healthier lives.

The digital world is helping people escape the cycle of poverty, and frankly, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.