Q&A: How mobile technology can help achieve the SDGs

Mobile technology has become a serious part of development efforts. Photo by: Butterfly Works / CC BY-NC-SA 

KIGALI, Rwanda — From digital payments to internet access, mobile phone use in Africa offers not only the opportunity to connect relatives from Cape Town to Casablanca, but also to stimulate economic growth and development.

The mobile subscriber base on the continent is expected to grow more than any other region between now and 2025, reaching 52 percent that year, according to GSMA’s recent Mobile Economy Report 2018 — but it is already commonplace to see teenagers texting, and elders collecting mobile money transfers.

At the 2016 Mobile World Congress, the industry committed to maximizing the contribution of mobile in supporting the Sustainable Development Goals. Today, this is evidenced through the dedicated Mobile for Development, or M4D, strategy at GSMA, the trade body that represents mobile network operators worldwide. The strategy recognizes nine target areas which hold opportunities to deliver innovations with social impact, including financial services, health, agriculture, digital identity, energy, water, sanitation, disaster resilience, and gender equality.

With operators pursuing innovative solutions to increase mobile access in remote areas, top make mobile services more affordable, and target mobile usage among women, consumers are increasingly engaged in the digital world and open to mobile-enabled services, the GSMA report said. In addition, wider mobile access could play an indispensable role during epidemics, conflicts, and natural disasters by allowing for emergency communication and services.

In July, GSMA hosted its Mobile360 Africa conference in Kigali, Rwanda, which enumerated the vast opportunities for governments, operators, and consumers in lower-income countries to engage with mobile technology, whether in humanitarian settings, or in the development of urban and rural areas. 

Devex sat down with GSMA’s Mobile for Development head Yasmina McCarty to learn more about how her department can bring together stakeholders to deliver life-enhancing services for those who need them most. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How can mobile technology advance the SDGs? Are there greater opportunities for mobile to impact certain SDGs than others?

When we looked at all 17 of the SDGs, we wanted to find ways that mobile could accelerate the achievements we already have. Our work right now is making direct contributions to 15 of 17 goals, so we are thrilled with that.

“When [mobile money] does thrive, we can hit that 2030 goal now.”

— Yasmina McCarty, head of Mobile for Development at GSMA

One of the things that’s really exciting is that we have had a large impact on the mobile money target. One of the SDG targets is to have a low cost of remittances cross-border. We see that with mobile money services, where those policies have been enabled, we’ve already hit the SDG target, so we’d love to see more countries enable policies to allow mobile money to thrive. When it does thrive, we can hit that 2030 goal now.

The M4D division is roughly 10 years old which means it was around during the Millennium Development Goals. How have the strategic goals of this division changed?

I don’t think that mobile was understood [10 years ago] and digital for development solutions were very nascent still. What we see now is that there are so many proof points. When you look at mobile for health solutions, for example, 2 million people have received nutritional messages through their phones or through voice content [under our mHealth program] and of those, 69 percent have taken action of some kind, which is amazing.

Statistics like this have awakened the world to the opportunity of mobile technology.

In agriculture, more than 12 million farmers have been reached [via mobile messages through our programs] and of those we see increased crop yields, decreased use of pesticides, and increased household income. We can show that direct correlation from the time you get a mobile phone until the time that you implement these practices on your farm, so this is a powerful potential that has unlocked the thinking of the United Nations, and also of the private sector who are now saying, “let’s scale up the solutions that have been proven.”

Are there any untapped markets or sectors where you feel mobile is still not being explored to its fullest potential?

Energy, water and sanitation [are areas] where we really would like to see more growth. We’ve already had 5 million people reached via mobile-enabled energy solutions, but we think that we are just scratching the surface and we need to deliver those technologies with Internet of Things connections.

One of the big challenges with traditional energy, water, and sanitation is that it requires a big lump sum payment. To get your family’s home or business on grid, you need to pay a connection fee to a municipality. It’s very time consuming, and it’s usually pretty expensive. The mobile-enabled solutions mean you can pay as you go. If your family can afford a lot of power this week and your business is doing well, you can “top up” your solar solution and have power throughout.

The remote technology allows you to turn on and turn off the solution, which means you can deploy a really sophisticated asset of solar water, sanitation, and earn back the money for that solution over time rather than forcing the consumer to pay upfront. Certain solutions can also be used for current national grids by putting them on smart meters. This model allows the government to significantly reduce the “leakage” that happens in traditional grid models. Usage is measured well and payment is proportionate.

Also, we can do more in the humanitarian space. Some 68.5 million people are now in need, and humanitarian organizations are under pressure to respond, so we see mobile solutions potentially facilitating that. It can help in the planning process and in monitoring to ensure aid efficiency, but it can also help in bringing dignity to the solutions because mobile technology allows a very individual approach.

What are some of the challenges in expanding M4D further, especially in Africa?

Some challenges are around enabling policy. When you look at mobile money, there is a perfect correlation between successful mobile money markets and an enabling policy environment.

Policy frameworks were designed many years ago and digital technologies are moving at a really fast speed, so to have that journey go hand-in-hand with the private sector and policymakers to get the frameworks right and allow for enough innovation, while also ensuring customer protection, is a real challenge.

We’ve learned that another challenge in adopting digital tools is insufficient local content, and the fact that many mobile solutions are developed with a smartphone in mind, which many users in Africa still don’t have. How can M4D reach far-flung rural areas?

The African context is really unique because you have places like Kenya, where some people are on a basic phone and may not have mobile internet coverage; some people are using smartphones; and then artificial intelligence and blockchain usage are all happening at the same time.

“We strive, in our M4D services, to make sure that we have that past, present, and future look in all of our solutions.”

We strive, in our M4D services, to make sure that we have that past, present, and future look in all of our solutions … and [then we support] the products and services on that journey to sophistication. We do have to innovate for the phones that are on the market and right now that is predominantly feature phones, but we should not lose sight of sophisticated innovations and look to things like AI as well. You’ll see us attempting to straddle that full breadth of digital technologies because that’s where the consumer is.

How do partnerships support the ambitions of the Mobile for Development division at GSMA?

GSMA is a mobile industry association, so most of our work is [supported by] donors philanthropically who say, “we are ready to put up risk capital in order to unlock new innovations from the private sector.” This is very much a public-private partnership model between mobile operators, donors, and ourselves in the middle.

We also want to attract innovators. We know that some of the best ideas can come from two people sitting having a coffee and coming up with great ideas. Our role then is to broker those partnerships. When we have a great innovator, he or she probably doesn’t have enough capital to drive to scale, but we have mobile operators who are inherently scale players and so we can matchmake. Similarly, we can bring in a humanitarian agency, or development partner, to bring in some of their understandings from those contexts.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.