- Thinking Horizontally and VerticallyA Better Way to Approach Mobile Innovation in the Developing World
The GSMA Mobile for Development team1 was delighted when Omidyar Network, a leading social investor, told us it wanted to increase its investment in developing world mobile technologies and asked for assistance in understanding the landscape of innovative products, services, and platforms. Organizations working in this area frequently talk in terms of sectors or “verticals”—for example, agriculture or healthcare—but, like most technology investors, Omidyar Network thinks horizontally and looks for versatile technology platforms that can scale to meet a wide range of user needs. The resulting research project forced the GSMA to take a different perspective, one that has changed the way it looks at mobile initiatives in the developing world and has helped guide the formation of a newly launched Mobile and Development Intelligence program.2 Through an online community, this program aims to map out a complete landscape of developing world mobile products and services, and to provide free access to a wide range of market data and analysis.
This article describes a new framework for thinking systematically about mobile initiatives in the developing world from both a sector (or vertical) perspective and a technology (or horizontal) perspective. This is based on a review and categorization of more than three hundred products and services, which between them account for hundreds of millions of users, customers, and beneficiaries. The [End Page 69] aim was to get a full picture of the projects currently in operation beyond just the most talked-about sectors and initiatives, and to understand the true scope of innovation by uncovering patterns in the needs addressed and the nature of the mobile products and services being deployed. This framework was used to map out horizontal and vertical patterns of innovation and to look at the potential to generate revenue and, hence, to achieve financial sustainability. The findings and resulting recommendations are described below.
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Background: The Breadth of Mobile Innovation in the Developing World
In just over a decade, mobile networks have become the predominant infrastructure in the developing world. Mobile phones are the most popular and widespread personal technology on the planet.3 There currently are more than five billion mobile connections in the developing world, and this number is still growing fast;4 in Africa, for example, more than 40 percent of people living on a low income now have access to a mobile phone.5 The arrival of mobile connectivity has had a fundamental impact on the daily lives of these populations and will continue to do so.
This explosion in mobile access has given rise to an incredible breadth of innovation in the developing world. Much of it is commercially driven, but there is also a huge number of nonprofit and government initiatives as well as social ventures with both financial and social objectives. The projects in this sample originated in 40 countries and covered every continent.6 As the innovative use of mobile continues to expand globally, a few hotspots are emerging—for example, India, the U.S., Kenya, and South Africa. While some products and services are developed in one country and deployed in others, there is an increasing pattern of locally developed solutions that support local needs.
The Vertical Perspective
A vertical, sector-based view of developing world mobile markets seems to be the default approach; in fact, many of the GSMA’s own Mobile for Development programs work from a vertical perspective, including healthcare (mHealth), agriculture (mAgri), and learning (mLearning).7 This approach is logical, since a relatively narrow set of vertically linked user needs or problems often forms the starting point for innovation. Mobile solutions can be very complex to deploy and scale, so focusing on a single sector, at least initially, can help to simplify the requirements for the solution. Donor funding strategies are also commonly designed to meet specific macro-objectives for having a social impact within a given area of need, as illustrated by the Millennium Development Goals.8
Mobile-based solutions address a comprehensive range...