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Where are the Mobile Operators in Mobiles for Development Projects?

By Wayan Vota on November 9, 2011

Steve Song recently wrote a great post on 3 reasons why M4D may be bad for Development where he says that:


Mobile operators have entrenched themselves with development agencies as the saviours of access and give generously to m4d development programs. Development agencies have rushed to embrace mobile operators.

While the latter is surely true, mobile phones are all the rage at USAID, I do not see the mobile operators “entrenched” with development agencies, nor do I see them giving “generously” to M4D programs. At least I don’t see them involved with the implementers of aid agency programs. In fact, with the exception of Nokia and Vodafone, none of the major mobile line operators (MTN, Safaricom, Airtel, Glo, etc) seem to even notice the development sector.

When juxtaposed with the efforts of technology companies like Intel, Microsoft, and Cisco to support the development industry, the disengagement of the mobile operators is even more striking. I propose there are 3 reasons why mobile phone companies are not entrenched and not giving generously to M4D implementers:

  1. Mobile technology doesn’t need donors
    The startling rise in mobile phone adoption has primarily been consumer driven – built on millions of micro scratch card transactions without many donor dollars amongst them. So mobile phone companies (handset manufactures, network operators, and their respective ecosystems) don’t feel the need to adapt to donor business practices, all of which seem very rigid and constraining when compared to the free-wheeling retail marketplace.
  2. Donors can’t adapt to private industry’s speed
    Mobile technology lives by quarterly targets. New models, pricing plans, and consumer services start, blossom (and die) in 3 months or less. Most donors can’t even issue an RFP in 3 months, often taking over a year from idea to contract award – an eternity in the mobile space. In addition, donor agencies require specialized business practices and expertise that might as well be a whole other language to private industry. And don’t even get started on the contracting constraints imposed by government purchasing departments who are used to domestic acquisitions.
  3. Implementers can’t afford in-house mobile expertise
    Last but not least, the implementers who do know how to work with donor agencies, and could be a bridge between the development and mobile communities, often can’t afford the mobile expertise. Mobile phone application developers, like other hot IT skills, are commanding salaries that are well beyond international development. Remember, the unwritten rule in development is that no one makes more than the contracting officer at the donor in charge of the contract.

These reasons were inspired by Roxanna Samii’s post where she says, “enough with pilots, let’s get serious about mDevelopment,” and concludes with this great summation of the mobile phone in development issue:

So, quite frankly speaking, I see private and public sector as two separate circles, who are continuously struggling to find an intersection point. However, the reality is that public and private sector live in different time zones and do not seem to have found their preferred collaboration tool which allows them to seamlessly work together and indeed create a win-win situation!

This should be a fair warning to those at donor agencies and within implementers who get all giddy about mobile phones and think that mobile line operators will be just as giddy about their M4D idea.

Working with mobile operators is not easy. Mobiles phones are not an all-encompassing panacea. And just maybe, not the right bet to make at all. Remember that according to the World Bank, broadband Internet access beats mobile phones in boosting GDP.


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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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One Comment to “Where are the Mobile Operators in Mobiles for Development Projects?”

  1. Lee H Babcock says:

    I wonder if the issue is less about MNO’s giving generously to M4D and more about donors interested in engaging with business models inside the mobile ecosystem. Insofar as MNO’s desire nationwhile subscription rates and reduced churn it seems they might now be realizing they do not have the capacity, capability and experience of development implementers in working in off the grid rural communities that are geographically disbursed, lack infrastructure, are illiterate and live in poverty. Herein lies the open door through which M4D projects can engage with mobile ecosystem business models thereby aligning the profit and social profit motives with development motives. Implementers need not have an internal mobile expertise but, instead, understand the mobile ecosystem well enough that relevant partnerships can be programmed into M4D projects.