As I settle into my new life in South Africa a million thoughts rush through my mind, but chief among them is where do I see myself in a year’s time. Such contemplation is not merely relegated to my professional life, but to my personal life as well. Still, moving to a new city – country – continent – hemisphere – all for a new job, necessarily ties the personal up with the professional. I decided to come to Cape Town for a change of scenery, but more importantly I made this change because I wanted to interact more closely with the beneficiaries of my work. I wanted to develop new skills and deepen my understanding of what development can do when we place the tools directly in the hands of those who stand to benefit from their usage. While I initially happened upon this particular opportunity by chance, I became quickly convinced, through long talks with friends and colleagues, that mobile technology is the way of the future, and here is why.
Africa, much like other parts of the developing world, was passed over for much of its modern history. Arab slave traders came to extract people and sell them in a global market. They were followed by Europeans who built insular towns and ports with roads to the interior, planned not for the benefit of indigenous people – no that was merely a pretext; infrastructure was meant to extract raw materials in the most expeditious manner. The end result of this pillaging was a land still rich in resources, but lacking in many of the basic services and infrastructure necessary to advance. While such an introduction warrants a far lengthier discussion, it is this deficit mentioned above which has actually paved the way for mobile technology’s boom in the African context.
Where land lines were lacking, roads were scarce, and internet was unheard of, cheap mobile phones spread like wildfire. Today, millions upon millions of Africans in even the most remote villages carry handsets that connect them to the rest of the world. Even where they may not have credit, their ability to receive messages and calls provides an unparalleled opportunity to connect with disparate people and share ideas, knowledge and life-saving information. In my previous work I saw how mobile handsets allowed farmers in the Philippines to save lengthy trips to town in order to manage their finances and check commodity prices. In India, birthplace of microfinance, mobile banking allows for more secure transactions, placing financial tools directly in the hands of small lenders and their clients while cutting the costs of expensive middle men. Broader applications are seemingly limitless – what about a reporting or alert system for vulnerable populations in war zones? An early warning network for those who live within reach of nature’s destructive forces, or an anonymous counseling and support system for victims of gender based violence or human trafficking.
In South Africa our initial operations are focused on healthcare, but already I can imagine myriad other uses to benefit diverse populations both here and back home. Mobile technology is the way of the future and as we see the proliferation of cheap phones that perform ever-more-complex tasks, the possibilities for the tools we develop is seemingly limitless. I have only just scratched the surface, learning about the potential for massive data collection, SMS medication reminders, and patient record keeping. Already I see how the combination of human ingenuity and a ubiquitous and relatively simple piece of technology can truly change the way we interact, care for one another, and exchange information that can and already has saved lives.
So what do I want to take away from my year in South Africa? I want to see this continent, as it is today, and as it can be tomorrow in tailoring the technology to the context. We can develop custom tools that tackle some of the most evasive challenges of our time and create meaningful and lasting change because the cost structure for these interventions is relatively cheap and, with scale, sustainable. Donor action remains important, but we cannot simply throw money at a problem without a long-term plan to see it through. International organizations and bilateral donors will indeed be critical in providing seed money to these initiatives, ensuring that they are supported to the point of sustainability. Therefore, it is my hope that I can spend the next 12 months learning how this model works and apply that knowledge to a more profound reform of the way development assistance is provided separating long-term aid programs, aimed at fostering growth, from relief programs whose purpose is, and should remain, separate.
Mobile technology might make lives for those of us in developed countries easier, but in the developing world we are seeing every day how it can save lives, build industry and transform society and I want to be at the forefront of this movement.
Steve is a Dimagi Field Fellow working in Cape Town, South Africa