How the developing world is using cellphone technology to change lives

From the Toronto Star by Tim Alamenciak an update on cell phone technology’s impact on the developing world

In Nigeria, a young girl can ask questions about sex discretely through SMS and get accurate information.

After the earthquake in Haiti, survivors in remote towns could receive money for food straight to their cellphone.

In Senegal, election monitors sent updates on polling stations through their mobile phones, revising an online map in real time with details about late openings or worse.

Projects like Learning about Living in Nigeria, MercyCorps in Haiti and Senevote2012 in Senegal are just a few examples of how the rapid spread of mobile technology has changed life in the global south.

Many places are jumping straight from paper records to mobile information because they are getting cellphone towers before Internet connections or even traditional phone lines. This means that for the first time it’s possible for a doctor in Guatemala City to monitor a newborn baby in a rural part of the country.

“People who never had access to information can get to a telecentre or a computer at their church or they have a mobile phone even if they share that mobile phone with their whole family and everyone just has their own SIM card,” said Revi Sterling, director of Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD) graduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“If that’s your data collection tool instead of papers that get blown away and eaten by goats, that’s valuable,” said Sterling.

Sterling founded the master’s program in 2010 to help produce students who could capitalize on the boom of connectivity in the developing world. It focuses on building connections between the world of technology and the world of development — something many see as a lucrative opportunity.

In 2001, just eight out of 100 people in the developing world had a mobile phone subscription. Now, nearly 80 out of 100 do.

In India, more people have access to cellphones than toilets, according to a 2010 report from the United Nations University.

“I have lots of students who come from an engineering and science background who say, ‘But you can’t eat (network) cable and you can’t drink YouTube,’” said Sterling. “The idea that you could ride the development wave on an emerging trend like technology certainly makes the technology a really indispensable tool.”



This software allows anyone to set up their own communications hub to send mass messages, manage automated SMS systems and collect data from the field. FrontlineSMS allows users to connect their mobile phone to a computer, transforming communication into something more powerful and manageable.

“If you go to the developing world and you look at how cellphones are being used you can really see that people are already doing this kind of organizational management, communicating with stakeholders, communicating with people they’re working with and for,” said spokesperson Laura Hudson.

The system enables easier management of SMS messages and also allows users to set up mailing lists, collect data and code automated reply systems. Traditional procedures involved checking in over the phone with remotely dispersed members of, for example, an aid team.

“Instead of that they can send an SMS. It’s cheaper for them, it saves time and the data can go straight into their report,” said Hudson.

FrontlineSMS was used to coordinate aid response after the 2011 floods in Pakistan and to manage reconstruction in Haiti. It has also been used to remind HIV patients of best practices and nutritional information.


This project came as a result of post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, when high mobile penetration met a need to know where trouble spots were located. The original idea was to produce a map of violent areas based on reports sent in by citizens via SMS or email. The system has evolved into an open-source platform to be deployed anywhere. Ushahidi has been used to map everything from earthquake damage in Haiti to blizzards in New York. A site called Crowdmap runs the Ushahidi software and allows anyone to sign up and create their own crowd-sourced map without the hassle of using their own server.

Refugees United

This project is designed to help refugees reunite with their friends and family. It replaces traditional forms of reconnection, allowing anyone to create a free profile with as much or as little information as they’re comfortable releasing. The profiles allow friends and family members to search under certain criteria, including given name, nickname, village or city of origin. The software works from both computers and internet-enabled phones.


One of the challenges with water delivery is predicting when the pipes are going to be opened. In many places this means lineups at the wells, often lasting hours or even days. Being tested in rural India, NextDrop alerts people via SMS 30-60 minutes before the water is turned on.



In Haiti, where 85 per cent of the population has a cellphone but only half has a bank account, MercyCorps deployed a new way to stimulate the economy after the earthquake: mobile payments. MercyCorps has dispensed more than $1 million (U.S.) to 6,000 people in rural Haiti — all using their cellphones.

“We pretty early on recognized that mobile was a great tool for (reaching more people) and also a direct channel into the communities where we work,” said Cameron Peake of MercyCorps.

Peake’s team is now working on a mobile savings system in the Philippines.

“The financial services area is really a promising and strong area to see financial sustainability,” said Peake.


This system allows Kenyans to use their cellphones to send and receive money. It is designed for people who don’t have bank accounts, enabling them to receive money domestically or from abroad and to pay bills. At its most basic, M-Pesa allows one user to send money to another as simply as sending a text message. The service is wildly popular in Kenya — it processes more transactions domestically than Western Union does globally, according to the International Monetary Fund. Founded by Safaricom and Vodafone, M-Pesa recently introduced M-KESHO, a savings account to complement the service.


This software does one thing — allows for easy money transfer between countries using mobile phones. It costs less than typical wire transfer services. Once the link is established and software registered on both ends, someone in the United States could send money to someone in Mexico with a simple text message. Currently the service works in Mexico and the U.S., with Haiti planned for future rollout.



Using SMS, the app tracks a cow’s gestation cycle and gives farmers notifications at key moments in a cow’s life. iCow allows farmers to optimize milk production and better monitor calving periods.

“It’s a little more unique in that there are lots of price apps but iCow gets down to the nitty-gritty, like the gestation period of a cow,” said Sterling.

Based out of Kenya, the app also helps farmers keep accurate and permanent records of milk production and breeding. It offers tips on farming dairy cows.

In a June 2011 pilot, farmers using the iCow app reported a 42 per cent increase in income on average.

The app also features a directory of veterinarians and a call centre that allows farmers to get advice. A recently released feature called iCow Soko allows farmers to trade livestock directly with one another.


Cocoa farmers in Ghana can get a helping hand through CocoaLink, a mobile app that delivers advice and allows rural farmers to have their questions answered without leaving the field. It is a partnership between Hershey’s, the World Cocoa Foundation and Ghana’s Cocoa Board.In Ghana, two out of three cocoa farmers have access to a mobile phone. The program is in its pilot phase, but there are already plans to extend the service to the Ivory Coast.


mFarm helps farmers in Kenya by relaying market prices through SMS. The software is designed for small-scale farmers who can’t make it to the major marketplace and risk being lied to by middlemen. The app retrieves prices from five major markets, allowing farmers to determine the best prices for their goods.


National Farmers Information Services is a service provided by the Kenyan government that gives farmers tips and advice on anything from ostrich farming to beekeeping. The service provides information in both English and Kiswahili through an automated telephone line. NAFIS also maintains a website containing this information as well as commodity price information.



The 2012 Senegal election saw a new kind of monitoring develop — independent, observant and connected through mobile technology. A group of people in Senegal have been monitoring elections since 2000, but this year they were dispatched with a mandate to report their findings immediately.

“It’s a very slow process traditionally. What we did was we took their process, we didn’t change it at all and we just said what we can do here is put a very simple coding system in,” said Jeffrey Allen, program coordinator with Mobile4good.

Since the monitors all had cellphones, it was just a matter of training them to use the system and send updates to the data collection and mapping software.

The map highlights both successes and failures, indicating where polling stations opened early or late, and other violations. It has the benefit of providing immediate accountability, but the data is also more easily assessed than if it were recorded on hundreds of sheets of paper.

“On the one hand, (the observers are) an alert for immediate issues. On the other hand, they’re data collection for the bigger picture so that at the end of the day, the civil society team can look at the data in total, look at everything that happened in the election, and make a pronouncement whether everything was free and fair or not,” said Allen.

The group is planning on employing the same technology in the upcoming runoff elections March 25.


A system is being piloted in India that allows people to file complaints about their government using SMS. The complaints are logged and filed according to their location and type. Once the complaints are registered, the person receives a tracking number and the local government deals with the complaint. The system is currently being tested in the Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh, outside of Bhopal, and Koraput district in Orissa.


uReport is a polling and citizen journalism organization that runs on SMS. Ugandans can respond to polls or text their stories to uReport. The group gathers this information and passes it along to radio and television stations, also publishing polls on its website. The poll results are available on a map. For example, a Jan. 31 poll asked uReport members if they knew female circumcision was illegal. About 76 per cent responded “yes.”


Learning about Living

Youth in Nigeria face strong opposition when it comes to learning about their own sexual health. Mobile4good, the company behind Learning about Living, allows them to discretely seek advice through SMS messaging. The service launched in 2007 and has received more than 400,000 messages.

“We realized there’s a serious problem with HIV/AIDS and with adolescent pregnancies and abortions — sort of clandestine abortions. A lot of this came from a lack of awareness among young people of how to protect themselves as they were reaching puberty and coming of age in that way,” said Mobile4good’s Allen.

Live operators trained in sexual health education answer the text messages.

“It’s not that they didn’t want to know how to protect themselves, it’s that they didn’t have any access to information,” said Allen.

The project has since been expanded to Senegal and the team is working on deploying it in Morocco.


This project in Guatemala uses technology to help better equip nurses in remote areas in an effort to reduce the infant mortality rate. Its software products allow nurses to track patient data over long periods of time, replacing the need for stacks of charts and forms. The service also offers free phone numbers that practitioners and patients can call to get answers about their health. The project is supported by the Canadian Tula Foundation.


This software allows medical professionals to use their mobile phone to monitor the health of young children and babies. It allows each child to be registered and their data to be tracked electronically, providing valuable insight into their health. The system uses SMS messaging to track specific data about the children and monitor for malnutrition, malaria and other diseases. The software is used at Millennium Villages projects across sub-Saharan Africa.


This simple app can make a profound difference in someone’s life, providing reminders when treatment is needed. Anti-retroviral therapy was the original purpose, though the software can be customized to work with any regular treatment or to remind patients of scheduled appointments. The software is free and open source, allowing any medical clinic to use it.

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