How Mobile Phones Are Changing the Developing World

Originally published on 27 July 2015, on CEA’s blog. Written by Grace Dobush. To view the original article, click here

Technology has the potential to lift people out of poverty. All signs point to the developing world skipping past the eras of landlines and desktop computers and going straight to mobile. That potential for two-way communication is changing the face of international development. “For the first time ever, we’re able to have a clear line to people who are in the middle of nowhere to give them a sense of a future, information, opportunity and choice,” says Chris Fabian, co-lead of UNICEF’s Innovation.

Mobile carrier industry alliance GSMA estimates globally there are now 7.5 billion mobile connections with 3.7 billion unique subscribers. But 10 percent of the Earth’s 7.2 billion people lack access to basic voice and text services, and about a third lack access to 3G or 4G mobile broadband internet. The majority of these uncovered populations live in the rural regions of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, which together account for 3.4 billion of the 4.8 billion people not yet connected to the internet.

Only 2 percent of African households have a landline, while nearly two-thirds of American households still do. Recent Pew Research Center numbers show that cell phones are as common in Nigeria and South Africa as they are in the United States, with about 90 percent of adults owning mobile phones. It’s worth noting that most of those cell phones in Africa are what we’d call basic or feature phones, capable of calling, texting and maybe basic Internet browsing. Pew found an average of 17 percent of people in Sub-Saharan Africa still do not own a cell phone, but more than half of those people have access to one sometimes.





As mobile phone networks spread to cover all rural areas, we have the chance to affect the lives of people who need the help most, making big changes to how people handle money, work, learn and participate in government.

Money and banking

Traditional banking is out of reach for many people in rural areas of developing countries, but mobile is bringing people into the financial system in droves. Financial inclusion, starting with a humble savings account, enables people to start businesses, invest in education and weather bad times. The World Bank estimates that the number of unbanked people in the world dropped by 20 percent to 2 billion people from 2011 to 2014.

M-Pesa, first launched in 2007 in Kenya, lets users transfer money via text message, and similar systems by other telcos have followed suit in Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Pew, 61 percent of Kenyans with cell phones reported making or receiving payments on their cell phones in the past year, as did 42 percent of Ugandans and 39 percent of Tanzanians. But less than one percent of the people in Nigeria, Sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest economy, regularly use mobile banking. A major financial institution there is partnering with the third-biggest telco to allow people to sign up for saving accounts via mobile phone, Quartz reports.


When you’re living in a remote part of the world, it can be difficult to make your voice heard. UNICEF’s U-Report program polls its one million members via text message, gathering information and opinions in real time in 15 countries. A few years ago, Uganda wondered why no one was applying for an entrepreneurship grant it had set up. A U-Report poll showed that the requirement of a school diploma was a problem for many people who were interested. Uganda struck the requirement and applications started flooding in. The polling can also be used to track disease outbreaks and violence.

In Quezon City in the Philippines, the local government is adopting mobile money to handle payroll, distribute welfare benefits and collect fees. Libya set up a first-of-its-kind mobile voter registration system in 2014.


“Most poor people in the world are subsistence farmers, growing only enough for themselves and their community because getting a surplus to market is too expensive,“ says UNICEF Innovation co-lead Erica Kochi. USAID Pakistan teamed up with local government and a local mobile carrier to create a mobile program that sends peach and potato farmers text or voice messages about crop prices, market access and disease prevention. In Mozambique, USAID is trying to encourage farmers to use mobile money to save during the harvest’s bounty so they can afford fertilizer when the next season starts and maximize their profits. The Grameen Foundation’s e-Warehouse project in Kenya helps small farmers properly store their crops while waiting for prices to hit an optimal level and can also connect them to advances against their crops. In Turkey, Vodafone’s Farmers’ Club combines free information with notifications and a members-only marketplace.The program has grown to more than 900,000 active users.


Mobile phones and tablets are bringing teachers to students in underserved regions like never before, thanks to dropping hardware costs. Rumie’s low-power tablets, pre-loaded with entire libraries, first got sent into action during the Ebola crisis, when schools in Liberia were shut down for months. Teachers are learning, too: A program in Pakistan provided instructors with videos on teaching methods that they could download at free hotspots.

UNICEF’s EduTrac works much like U-Report, but focuses on teachers. Uganda’s Ministry of Education and Sports is able to reach out to subscribed teachers to check on attendance, facilities and supplies without driving hundreds of miles to visit each site. Mobile banking can help education, too: A school in Bangladesh has allowed parents to make payments via mobile phone whenever is convenient for them, in small amounts or pre-paying large amounts.


The Grameen Foundation’s Mobile Midwife program sends women daily texts and weekly voicemails with advice in their language during pregnancy and the first year of the child’s life. The basic version of the service is free, with add-ons available for a fee. In Nigeria it cost the equivalent of 15 cents per week. UNICEF’s 1000 Days program provides similar support for mothers with a focus on nutrition through pregnancy and the first two years of a child’s life and may soon be implemented across Mexico.

In Mozambique, mobile is being used in the fight against HIV and AIDS. British nonprofit Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) incorporated mobile messaging to remind patients enrolled in anti-retroviral therapy about appointment dates and to take their medication. Mobile messaging improved retention rates: 96 percent of users were still on track with their therapy after six months and 85 percent after 12 months, compared to the national average of 72 percent.

UNICEF’s mTrac looks at the health system itself: About 30,000 front-line health workers at 3,700 health centers in Uganda submit weekly reports electronically and are able to receive surveys, alerts and other communications. Are supplies arriving on time? Are the levels sufficient? Is the clinic storing medicines properly?

Challenges remain

As I write this story on Google Drive using my ultrathin laptop, my smartphone is charging, silently uploading pictures to Dropbox, and my tablet is upstairs, where I’ll use it later to read until I fall asleep. But what if charging your phone cost 20 percent of your monthly income, as it does for the most financially insecure families in Burundi?

Mobile still has hurdles to jump before it can reach all the lives of people most in need of the technology: Namely, reliable, affordable energy and comprehensive network coverage. Until these infrastructure issues are improved, “dumb” phones will continue to be the standard, and we’ll see function top form every time. (This brick of a phone is not pretty but doubles as a power bank and has earned cult status in Ghana.) Mobile use could actually help improve the power grid in the developing world: A recent study by the Santa Fe Institute theorizes that cell phone use could help developing countries plan electrical infrastructure.

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