While last week I cautioned against using old frames of reference when discussing things that have been transformed by new technology, this week I want to highlight the exceptions, the veritable flip-side of the coin. Where in developed countries the smart phone has transformed the notion of a phone, in the least developed countries, the transformations are happening on a much slower rate. But it is happening. Mobile phones are changing the equation regarding how people in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, connect with each other and with the internet. Though slower to start the transformation and doing so with fewer resources to spend, these countries are benefitting from the new mobile economy. Still, given the context, we should expect them to lag behind the developed countries as they transform at a slower rate. That is why we see reports that show the relatively slow rise of mobile finance, health and agricultural services. But while the statistics show it is happening more slowly, statistics do not tell the whole story.
In a recent article published by Newsweek, Tae Yoo writes that the raw numbers of mobile phone penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa paint an overly optimistic picture of the impact of mobile technology on that part of the world. As evidence for his dour assessment, Yoo cites a year old study from the Pew Research Center called "Emerging Nations Embrace Internet, Mobile Technology." Leaving aside the fact that the study is a year old, which can be a lifetime in internet years, Pew's tone was significantly more upbeat than Yoo's. Pew found that not only is mobile phone use approaching saturation levels in many of these countries, but smartphone use is steadily rising within them. Pew also finds that once people get on the smart phone bandwagon, they start using social media and other internet services. And while these countries may be far behind the developed world and growing more slowly into the digital age, they are moving steadily in that direction. As a result, the impact of a relatively small group of early adopters can be felt across these societies.
Four big factors make me optimistic that these countries will continue to move deeper into the mobile-connected digital economy. First, compared to where they were just a few years ago, the improvements are staggering. Second, as people experience the value mobile connectivity provides, they get the people around them excited to join their ranks. Third, there is a well-developed social graph already in place in Sub-Saharan societies that include word-of-mouth, radio, newspapers and some internet, already. Adding mobile networking to the mix, even in small proportions, enhances the flow of information throughout the populations. And finally, fourth, there is a well-developed NGO effort to accelerate the adoption and incorporation of mobile financial agricultural and health services into these countries, led by organizations such as the Gates Foundation and the Grameen Foundation.
Efforts by NGOs leveraging mobile phone services to help families in the poorest nations start their climb out of poverty provides a nice nudge to the mix of the naturally evolving mobile economy driven by the first three factors. Individual stories of success, such as those featured on Grameen Foundation's Facebook page, provide a human face to the potential mobile financial, agricultural and health services offer the people of less developed nations. And examples of these stories are on the rise, becoming larger-scale successes.
So while articles like Tae Yoo's offer a "glass half-empty" view of the impact of mobile services in the poorest nations, I contend that given the rising adoption rates of these technologies and services, people should see a "glass half full" reality. The "half empty" versus "half full" dilemma is only a toss-up if the balance is static. If reality is trending downward, the "glass half empty" label fits. But, as is the case here, if it is trending upward, the glass will getter fuller as we move forward.
When analysts look at the impact of mobile phones on the economic lives of people in the poorest nations, we must always remember to consider what those nations looked like a few years ago, how late they were coming to the mobile game, how fast can they afford to develop this sector and what factors will help accelerate their development. Considered in this context, Pew's optimism about mobile phone impact in poor nations seems far more warranted than Yoo's pessimism.