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Stop Giving Away Smartphones!

By Wayan Vota on September 15, 2016


Pretty much every day, I hear the same failure refrain repeated again and again, “We gave away 50-100 smartphones for our mobile project.” Why is this an indication of failure? Please show me the Ministry that can afford to buy 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,0000 smartphones for all it’s frontline staff, even before maintenance, support, or replacement costs are added in.

There are none. Which means every free phone pilot is doomed to fail to scale.

So what can be done? How can you make sure frontline staff to achieve the goals you want to happen using your cool new app? Here are three ideas:

  1. Use the Phones They Already Have
    Yep, that’s right. Stop with the smartphone app development and go back to old-school SMS or IVR interactions where staff can use basic or feature phones to connect with your shiny new system. It’s not as sexy as an app, but it can be way more effective.
  2. Subsidize Smartphone Purchases
    Instead of giving away phones, pass out vouchers that participants can redeem for a percentage of a smartphone cost. They’ll need to chip in a bit, but then it’s their phone, and they will treat it better than any phone you give them. Maybe they will even surprise you and upgrade to seriously cheap smartphone bling.
  3. Make a Better App
    Have you ever seen an ICT4Futbol intervention? No, because no one needs to help people find a futbol game – they do it themselves. And maybe if you made an intervention that impacted peoples lives like futbol, you wouldn’t need to subsidize their phone purchases – they’d buy phones just to get to your life-changing solution.

Yes, that last one is the hardest option to achieve – way harder than giving away 50 smartphones – but one that will have much more impact.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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11 Comments to “Stop Giving Away Smartphones!”

  1. Alex Little says:

    But wasn’t the same argument used before low end phones were ubiquitous, and projects were purchasing low end phones (at costs not that far from smartphones cost now)?
    My take on this is that purchasing devices is for sure not ideal, but it’s a temporary step before smartphones are ubiquitous, allowing the technology and tools to be developed and tested in preparation.
    For examples of government purchasing, the Ministry of Health in Ethiopia purchased 20,000 tablets for it’s medical students (see: http://www.ena.gov.et/en/index.php/social/item/1456-ministry-donates-20-000-tablets-to-medical-schools)

    • Wayan Vota says:

      If a project has clear government support to scale up the equipment buy and the resources to maintain the equipment, then by all means, include a hardware pilot to test equipment options.

      But sadly, this is an extremely rare situation.

      The link you point to is a case in point. The article talks about the ministry “donating” tablets. No provision for maintenance that I can see. Nor for a similar buy in ongoing years, though I give you that this could be a pilot on gov scale.

      I still say that even better than a donation would be a voucher for tablets so Ethiopian college students would see the tablet as theirs vs. a handout.

  2. Wayan, no no no! Sorry, but I have to respectfully disagree on all three points.
    1. If we should use the tools they already have, then why not pencil and paper? Pencils aren’t as sexy as dumb phones, but hey, it’s the technology that almost everybody already has right now. We are smartphone-first because we believe technology changes so fast that we need to design for the future, not the present. SMS is a low-bandwidth technology that has an ancient user interface, no GPS, no storage, no multimedia, no access to the wider internet. Compared to cheap smartphones, it’s looking more and more like pencil and paper.
    2. Giving a subsidy for the purchase of a phone is not functionally different than giving them away. However, it will create massive problems for the technology provider, who will need to support users who purchased one of the hundreds of no-name devices flooding the markets that don’t properly implement Android.
    3. We need to stop thinking of technology as a development intervention and start treating it as a critical component of every development program. Recording patient visits or mapping water points will never be as fun as a football app, because it’s work. But if technology can make people’s work easier or more effective, they will be motivated to use it. Plus, they can use their new smartphone to catch up on football on their own time 😉

    • Wayan Vota says:


      1. Pencil and paper is a perfect solution if that’s the most effective intervention. We should design for what works today and literally tomorrow. Poor people can’t afford whiz bang that doesn’t work right now.
      2. The coupon should only good for specific models, ideally from the same provider (I.e. MNO or national retailer), base, middle, high end, so people have choice to upgrade, but not crazy time as you rightly point out.
      3. Then make your app so awesome that people want to use it at work because it makes their job so much better/rewarding/efficient etc.

      • Smartphones are not whiz bang technology; they are literally present in every region of every country. Even in a poor region you will find managers, doctors, NGO workers, young people who work in the city, and so on who buy them because they want to be connected to the internet. We have seen programs that ask professionals who already have a smartphone to use some miserable SMS shortcode system to send in case reports because of these beliefs about smartphones being too new or expensive. I just don’t understand why a program that gives away the labor and travel of international staff, provides funds for local staff, marketing, etc. for an intervention then decides to draw the line at providing decent technology.
        And our app is awesome! But the app is not an intervention; it makes interventions data-driven, real-time responsive to changing conditions, and more efficient. Yet people won’t do things that aren’t part of their job description. And interventions that just hope people will use an app because it’s fun like football are doomed to more failure, because it really isn’t as fun as football. It’s work.

        • Ed says:

          Smartphones may not be flashy to you or I, but to people who can’t afford them, owning one can make you a target for thugs. We’ve seen this before in some countries. Putting workers at risk because owning ‘cool things’ makes you a target is not ideal. It’s also a temptation for quick cash in some cases where money is tight. Have you budgeted to replace lost and stolen phones? The case for going with what’s ubiquitous and sustainable is very much valid IMO. Time may change things, but as it is, smartphones are not yet ubiquitous – certainly not where I work.

    • Herman Fung says:

      On point 3. I’d like to think that there’s always a genuine need for better devices to allow people to learn more digital skills, and in due course, build the apps that they really need themselves.
      Who says the free smartphones have to come with an app that suits anyone but the end user? 🙂

  3. Herman Fung says:

    Excellent debate!

    Points well made on all sides.

    For me, it’s clearly about the “real need” and purpose. Smartphones, like all technology, is simply an enabler. I don’t believe it should be ruled in or out purely in any one dimension or criteria.

    So in terms of overall optimism, I tend to agree with John Feighery. Partly because I want to believe that smartphones can be used for good. And the biggest success or failure factor is how we use them.

  4. Harald Puhl says:

    Maybe I am mistaken, but the whole discussion seems a bit artificial to me.
    The facts are: We have smartphones which allow us to do much more than with classic mobile phones. We will have much more smart phones in the future. We still have many ordinary mobile phones just now.
    It seems to me that the most pragmatic way would be to allow for both, if required (depending on the local project situation). If we design our technical interfaces properly, both can easily be supported and we can watch the transition from the old to the new technology in a very relaxed way and let the future decide about transition speed 🙂
    Distributing smart phones in a limited context would have one important role though IMHO: it is required for lighthouse approaches, where one can test new approaches and functionalities for which you need a defined user and hardware base. Nothing wrong with exploring the future for me…