Digital transformation can revolutionize the developing world

February 12, 20184 Minute Read

Imagine this: You’re a farmer with a bumper crop. You want to sell it, but after a hard day in the field, business management is difficult. You have no way of finding the market price or advertising to buyers. Time is critical. What do you do?

Traditionally, you’d have to go to a middle man who had cornered the market and would take a huge cut of your profit, leaving little for you or your family. Not anymore. Thanks to new technology solutions, like MFarm, farms can send an SMS message and receive local information showing the market price for their products. They can then use a group selling tool, bringing their products to drop-off points and advertising their wares via mobile service. To make things even easier, a solution like MFarm can even deliver customer payments to farmers electronically.

Digital transformation carries just as much potential for communities in the developing world as for companies elsewhere. A lot of it happens using mobile communications networks that are increasingly common, because they’re easier to roll out to far-flung rural areas than fixed-line broadband access.

Take green business management to the poverty line

Technology companies are also helping to build out the infrastructure that supports these mobile applications in emerging markets. They’re using green tech to make mobile infrastructure reliable and environmentally friendly. Greenwish Partners is a renewable energy company run by former Morgan Stanley Investment Management managing director Charlotte Aubin-Kalaidjian. She hopes to invest over CAD$1 billion across Africa, installing solar-powered telecommunications towers to help create a more reliable mobile infrastructure continent-wide.

Her decision to start the company stemmed from the lack of reliable electrical power to many of the continent’s 240,000 mobile transceiver towers. By marrying solar-power with towers’ existing diesel generators, she has been able to produce entirely off-grid mobile communication towers.

Greenwish is one example of a company using modern technology to empower the 900 million in the world in extreme poverty that the World Bank says are still living on CAD$2.40 per day or less. Technology can create new opportunities for people by transforming many aspects of life, ranging from improving production on rural farms through to enabling mobile payments.

As companies build out reliable technology infrastructure in developing regions, innovative social entrepreneurship programs are providing valuable services on top of them. One example is OnionDev, a social enterprise that is helping get information to people in India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and African countries who need it the most.

Delhi-based social technology company Gram Vaani realized that smart phone penetration and mobile data use is currently low in many developing markets, and created a voice-based interactive media platform to help underserved residents in these areas connect with locally relevant content. Voice recordings accessed via a simple interactive voice response system serve up hyper local news, civic rights information, and community opportunities published by volunteers throughout the day.

Bring clean water with smart sensors

Technology can help information to flow like water through developing markets, but it can also provide access to water itself. The IoT is reaching far beyond the developed world into countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, where populations face serious challenges in water delivery and quality.

Portland, Oregon-based SweetSense is using simple, low-powered sensors to improve water, sanitation, and agriculture services. It has deployed more than 1,000 sensors in the last five years, monitoring everything from boreholes to hand pumps and latrines and providing a single, holistic view of water infrastructures and usage in developing areas.

Government IT decision-makers and policy-makers can do their part to help the growth of enabling technologies in their regions, explains Nagy K. Hanna, a senior fellow and board member at the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, in his blog post for the World Bank. He says that governments must nurture the digital ecosystem, understanding that digital technologies are highly interdependent (mobile information systems depend on reliable cellular infrastructure, for example).

Here’s what we need from government

Hanna continues with what’s on governments to deliver. He says governments need leadership to mobilize long-term commitment and create development strategies rather than simple ad hoc projects. Finally, governments must invest in process innovation and institutional learning. Every dollar invested in ICT should be matched with a four- or five-fold investment in these areas, he advises.

What happens when governments get this right? Societies become more connected. Citizens become more digitally literate. Grassroots innovation begins to flourish. That’s how Farm Shop came to help smallholders. Before digital innovations came into view, vendors used cumbersome paper-based systems for business management—meaning that products were often out of stock. The network of stores takes a different approach in offering agricultural products to local farmers, using tablets with software that lets franchised store owners order inventory with a single swipe.

The company can track point of sale transactions in real time, enabling them to maintain prices and inventory for local farmers, who can source everything from seeds to micro-drip irrigation systems. The company also offers soil testing services to farmers, delivering the results to them directly via SMS message.

As the cost and availability of technology continues to drop, the barrier to entry for developing communities is falling away. By working together, private enterprise and government decision-makers can create new opportunities for efficiency and better public infrastructure in the largest cities and the smallest towns.

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