While the more eye-catching technologies at Mobile World Congress this week included robots that dance and drum and a dress that lights up according to personality, the event also illustrated ways that mobile technology can be used to address major global challenges, from personalized learning to pay-as-you-go solar.
Thousands of exhibitors gathered in Barcelona, Spain, this week to present their products and services, from virtual reality headsets to 5G phones to smart cars.
Hosted by the GSMA, a trade organization representing mobile network operators, the Mobile World Congress has evolved from an industry event for telecom companies to a massive technology conference, and become a draw for individuals working at the intersection of emerging technology and global development.
This year, the agenda included a dedicated track on the Sustainable Development Goals, and participants shared takeaways for global development professionals with Devex.
“There’s been a lot of talk about data and development goals and how increasingly big data can play a part in that whole world,” said Kenny Ewan, founder and CEO of WeFarm, which crowd sources information for smallholder farmers without access to internet. It won the startup pitch competition for mobile innovation at Mobile World Congress.
The conference also saw the launch of new reports on the state of the industry, such as GSMA’s first report on humanitarian connectivity, highlighting how mobile network operators supported disaster preparedness and response last year. There is a growing awareness of the way increased connectivity underpins the SDGs, leading many groups to discuss opportunities for collaboration between mobile network operators, global development organizations, and others in order to accelerate universal internet access. GSMA has a team called Mobile for Development dedicated to bringing the mobile industry together with other organizations that can scale the innovations needed to tackle issues ranging from food security to financial inclusion.
“Mobile is the single technology which cuts across geographies, cultures and incomes levels and we expect the impact on emerging markets to grow exponentially,” the team, responsible for much of the Mobile World Congress programming related to emerging market entrepreneurship and the SDGs, says on their website.
While global development professionals did have to do a bit of searching through the agenda to find those conversations of relevance to them, the conference featured a number of technologies that will allow new actors to take on issues of poverty that were previously in the domain of government or nongovernmental organizations, participants told Devex.
At the Rural Village, the focus was on technologies that address everyday challenges in developing countries, from weather forecasting to solar energy to mobile health. But given the rapid pace of technological innovation, even the more futuristic technologies at Innovation City could make an impact in these markets sooner rather than later.
From existing technologies such as social media, to emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, society needs to think through ways to adapt new technologies so they work for us rather than against us, and startups can lead the way, said Esteban Redolfi, executive director of 4YFN, or 4 Years From Now.
Redolfi mentioned Agroptima, farm management software developed by farmers and engineers in Barcelona, as one example.
From the 4YFN event to the mainstage at Mobile World Congress, there were insights into ways to tap into the potential of mobile connectivity as a tool for sustainable development.
“Everyday there is new innovation coming, new challenges coming,” Parag Mittal, chief commercial officer at Soracom Inc., said of the rapid evolution of the “internet of things,” among other technologies. “How will you adapt if you’re not able to scale and optimize and be flexible enough?”
As projects to bring off-grid solar energy to East Africa expand to new markets, partnerships with the mobile industry will be critical, given its “existing relationship with the rural customers,” said Adam Brain, program manager for M-KOPA labs.
M-KOPA, an off-grid solar company working in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, developed a solar-powered LED flat-screen television for solar home lighting systems that was on display at the exhibition.
Many of the organizations at Mobile World Congress likewise sought partners for scale, such as Kopagas, which provides pay-as-you-go services for natural gas for clean cooking.
“Technologies are becoming quickly adopted in developing countries, much faster even than developed countries, and that presents an opportunity,” said Joaquin Aviles Lopez, head of strategy at Kopagas, explaining that the key is to make these technologies accessible and affordable so they can meet the needs of users in emerging markets and drive global development outcomes. “Technology is providing a great opportunity and ... I think it can expedite many of these solutions.”
Kopagas got a grant from GSMA to test mobile money integration for these services, and at Mobile World Congress the team showcased their project in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They were at the conference to draw interest from partners to expand the project in other countries across Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Still others sought to deliver the message that their countries are open for business.
“We are the gateway to India for IoT,” said Juergen Hase, CEO of Unlimit, the dedicated internet of things unit of Reliance Group in India. He emphasized that he was not at the event to sell anything, but rather to communicate the message: “Please come to India.”
The event presented the opportunity to make connections that could lead to collaborations, and to announce new partnerships, including a joint initiative between Orange, Sierra Wireless, NOKIA, and the IoT company Groundtruth to extend the connectivity of IoT devices to smallholder farmers in developing countries.
“This partnership brings new technology with global reach and allows us to collect data further into rural farming areas,” said Ralph Lin, principal at Groundtruth. “More data and analysis can only help us better tackle big problems facing global food security such as climate change and water availability.”
For more from Mobile World Congress, check out the Sustainable Development Goals track from Mobile World Congress or follow the hashtag at #MWC2017.
Devex’s Helen Morgan, Naomi Mihara and Rebecca Root contributed reporting to this story.
Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.
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